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Tom Rice voted to impeach Trump — and he isn't going down without a fight

The South Carolina Republican isn't the only one who blamed former President Donald Trump for Jan. 6 — but he's one of the few to say it out loud.

On Jan. 13, 2021, Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C., was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach then-President Donald Trump on a charge of inciting his followers to attack the U.S. Capitol. That vote has earned him Trump’s condemnation and a sea of challengers trying to unseat him in June’s GOP primary.

While none of Rice’s fellow Republicans who voted for impeachment have said they regret their vote, four have opted not to run for re-election. Trump has already endorsed one of Rice’s competitors, state Rep. Russell Fry, and, thus, turned the primary into yet another proxy war for the future of the party.

Rice’s impeachment vote loomed throughout Thursday’s debate between five of the candidates vying for the Republican nomination, and when Rice was asked to justify his vote to impeach, the congressman was ready. Over the following three minutes, Rice both defended his decision and fired shots at the hypocrisy of his own party’s leadership.

“Democracy is a fragile thing,” Rice began, “and the one thing we have to protect us from tyranny is our Constitution, and our Constitution has to be protected at all costs.”

Rice described the scene inside the Capitol during the attack and then said that after they were evacuated, he couldn’t understand why Trump had yet to appear on Fox News to help quell the violence. About 20 minutes into the assault, Trump tweeted an attack on Vice President Mike Pence, whom he had been pressuring to unilaterally overturn the 2020 election results. That, for Rice, was the last straw.

“My friends, you can argue about whether his speech that morning was incitement or not, but to me, that one tweet was incitement,” Rice said. “If they’d have gotten ahold of Mike Pence, we could have lost our democracy that day.”

“So, in my opinion, our Constitution is too precious to risk,” Rice continued. “And the one difference between me and all those leaders back in Washington who said, ‘Oh, Donald Trump went too far. He should be impeached. He should be removed,’ and then voted the other way? I took the principled stand, and I defended our Constitution.”

There are three main takeaways from that brief speech.

First, that kicker was an obvious dig at House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. Last month, two reporters released audio of McCarthy talking with House GOP leadership and blaming Trump for the attack. In alluding to McCarthy’s subsequent groveling, it’s clear Rice is hoping McCarthy’s cowardice, and not his own political bravery, is seen as the real sin here.

Second, when it comes to discussions about the Republicans who’ve stepped up to defend democracy, it seems to me that the only reason we haven’t heard Rice’s name bandied about as much as the names of Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., is that Rice isn’t on the Jan. 6 committee with them. Rice was one of just 35 Republicans to vote in favor of establishing a bipartisan commission to investigate the attack. In December, he told Politico he doesn’t regret his impeachment vote — but he does regret voting against certifying Joe Biden’s win even after the attack.

Rice’s embrace of his vote — more than Trump’s endorsement of a rival — is to me what sets the stakes for his primary and the future of the Republican Party.

“In the wee hours of that disgraceful night, while waiting for the Capitol of our great country to be secured, I knew I should vote to certify,” Rice said. “But because I had made a public announcement of my intent to object, I did not want to go back on my word. So yeah, I regret my vote to object.”

Third, Rice’s embrace of his vote — more than Trump’s endorsement of a rival — is to me what sets the stakes for his primary and the future of the Republican Party. Rice is definitely a conservative and definitely a partisan. When Trump was in office, he backed almost every one of his policies that came up for a vote. During this Congress, he’s voted against basically every Democratic legislative priority to come to the House floor.

Absent his willingness to call out Trump’s role in Jan. 6, Rice would have no problem winning re-election. There hasn’t been any polling out of his district, so we can’t judge on that front yet. But he’s got $1.5 million more in his campaign war chest than Fry — none of the other candidates come close. Fry is seen by some local conservatives as a near clone of Rice — but Rice happened to have been the one to vote to impeach Trump, the Myrtle Beach Sun News reported. The Republican Party chair for his district even told South Carolina Public Radio reporter Victoria Hansen that without his impeachment vote, he “could have kept his job forever,” she told an NPR podcast in February.

Moreover, Rice knows that his constituents are mad at him for “betraying” Trump — and he could have run away from that vote, pulling a McCarthy and begging Trump for forgiveness. Instead, he’s made peace with the fact that it might cost him his seat. According to that February NPR podcast, Rice said that “if the consequences are that people think that what happened is OK, then, you know, I guess I'm not the guy.”

That, I think, is the bare minimum, the absolute floor, for what we should expect from elected officials. Because he’s right: If his district really chooses to ditch him over his vote against Trump, that is democracy in action. That doesn’t mean, though, that he has to go quietly or help them assault the Constitution that he swore an oath to uphold.