MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — GOP Rep. Tom Rice had barely ever criticized Donald Trump before he shocked just about everyone by voting to impeach him in January 2021.

His experience over the next 17 months in his district might explain why so few in his party have chosen to join him.

Voters have hung out of car windows and yelled from crowds to call him a “traitor.” His chief of staff had to sort through death threats to decide which ones she needed to flag for Rice and which ones should go straight to the police. His wife was initially afraid to go to the grocery store.

That’s to say nothing of the political peril Rice finds himself in. On Tuesday, he will face a Trump-endorsed opponent, state Rep. Russell Fry, in a contest that is very likely to extend into a vicious runoff where the former president can continue his “revenge tour” against the incumbent.

Rice’s campaign is a vignette of what it means to cross Trump in today’s Republican Party. The personal cost to him and those who associate with him is compounded by the threat of a career-ending loss.

“He’s purging. He’s purging. He’s trying to set the Republican Party up as a bunch of yes-men loyalists,” Rice warned of the former president in an interview at a local bistro here Saturday. “Think about that. That’s scary.”

Yet for the party to become less beholden to Trump, as Rice is imploring it to do, more members would have to declare their independence. Few are willing to risk the price of attempting that.

“Trump, like no other person I’ve ever met,” he added, “is the most spiteful and petty and vengeful.”

Yet even now, Rice’s harsh words for Trump start and end with Jan. 6 — and the former president’s obsession with retribution after it.

“He hadn’t shown himself to be a tyrant before that,” Rice said. “I don’t think he was a tyrant before that. I do think he’s a narcissist. He craves attention. He hates to lose.”

“I wish he had won,” Rice said. “I wish he had won, because then Jan. 6 wouldn’t have happened.”

‘That’s what a dictator would do’

Elected in 2012 shortly after his coastal district was first created, Rice was never a frequent Trump detractor in Congress, nor was he a moderate. He is a soft-spoken accountant and attorney, a country club and Chamber of Commerce Republican, who used his tax skills to help Trump enact the largest overhaul of the tax code in three decades.

Of the nine other House Republicans who voted to impeach a Republican president, Rice, 64, was the most surprising. He does not represent a swing district full of independents and Democrats, like Reps. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) or David Valadao (R-Calif.). He had never flirted with a role as a Trump foil, like Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.).

But Rice was in the House chamber on Jan. 6, 2021, when rioters tried to break in. He recalls passing bloodied law enforcement officers on his way to shelter. He waited all day for Trump to condemn the rioters — a statement that never came.

“He sat there and watched the Capitol get sacked and took pleasure in that. He said: ‘Look what I created! Look how rabid these people are to follow me.'” Rice recalled thinking. “That pushed me over the edge. That’s what a dictator would do.”

No one — not his staff or even his family — knew he had decided to vote for impeachment. Moments after casting that vote, Rice raced out of the Capitol to make a flight home, his chief of staff rushing to craft a statement in the passenger seat. Rice was bombarded by frantic calls from colleagues who thought he had hit the wrong button when voting.

“I was freaking out, trying to call him to be like, ‘Hey!'” said Rep. William Timmons (R-S.C.), a home-state colleague. “They informed us that it was not a mistake.”

The backlash

The hate messages quickly arrived in all forms: voicemail, email, snail mail. Rice’s staff no longer lets him read Facebook posts. “I probably had, I’m not exaggerating, over 1,000 emails and texts,” Rice said in the aftermath of his vote.

Rice’s wife, Wrenzie, said she was scared to venture around the district in the days following the impeachment, and she implored her son not to walk alone to bars at night.

“I just did not feel safe,” she said. She had just watched fervent Trump supporters stage a violent attack on the Capitol. There were plenty of diehard Trump fans in her community as well. “You don’t know if they all of a sudden hate you and want to hurt you.”

One of the death threats made its way directly to Rice’s cell phone. He still has the message: “What kind of bird does not sing. You chose sides and now you pay the price.”

At some point after the vote, Rice realized only nine other GOP colleagues joined him. He had hoped for more, but he never thought it would be a large number.

“I think there’s certainly members of the conference that would have liked to have voted the other way,” Rice said.

And while he’s careful not to question the decisions of most of his rank-and-file colleagues, Rice said he’s upset at the way his party’s leadership ran back to Trump so quickly after the riot. He confirmed that he confronted House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in a conference meeting, from which taped audio was subsequently leaked.

“Good God, what are you doing?” he recalled saying. McCarthy had called Trump “responsible” for the attacks and begged him for help when he and his staff were under threat — before embracing him at Mar-a-Lago weeks later.

Former House Speaker Paul Ryan joined Rice to campaign in the district this month. Rice said he suspects Ryan would also have voted to impeach had he been in Congress. “I have a lot of respect for Paul,” he said.

The South Carolina Republican Party issued a rare censure of Rice in January 2021, and the party later declined to invite him to a major conference it held in his district. Rice’s wife said she stopped attending local GOP meetings with her husband because they became hostile. His cousin, while attending a small high school reunion, had a former classmate start an argument over Rice.

“We paid a price for it, too,” said Susan Spradlin, Rice’s cousin, as her husband nodded next to her. She said she’s proud of Rice — but the backlash from his decision can be daunting.

“He’s the closest thing to a brother I have, him and his brother,” she said. “I don’t want anything to happen to him. I really don’t. And he’s taken on the biggest bully in the United States.”

Throughout it all, Rice has said he never regretted his vote, deflecting attacks with a dry sense of humor. He mocked his slew of opponents for groveling for Trump’s endorsement. When the state party failed to mail him a copy of the censure resolution, he called and asked for it.

Then, he framed it and hung it on his wall.

“I know in my heart I did the right thing,” he said.

A crowded primary

Since his first election, Rice has easily won primaries in his deep-red district, which unites the state’s coastline with more rural inland communities. This time, challenger after challenger leapt into the race.

At first, the massive field of challengers going after Rice gave him an opening — if they all split the anti-incumbent vote, he had a stronger chance of winning. Then Trump waded in more forcefully.

Fry, a state legislator first elected in 2015, was on his way to blow up balloons for his son’s fifth birthday on a Friday evening when Trump called his phone for an interview. Trump endorsed him on Feb.1. Another top candidate dropped out, and Fry began consolidating the field.

In an interview at his campaign headquarters at a strip mall in Murrells Inlet, Fry said sees Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 attack much differently: “I think he very clearly said for people to peaceably assemble and to go home.”

Much of his campaign has centered around Rice’s vote.

Standing on the bed of a truck the weekend before the primary, addressing a few dozen people eating hotdogs in a parking lot barbecue, Fry accused Rice of “parading around town showing everybody a selfie that he somehow got with President Donald Trump — and three months after that, he voted to impeach him in the most reckless, factually bereft, speedy impeachment in American history.”

Behind him, a girl held a sign with his campaign’s tagline: #FryTheRice.

Trump parachuted into the district to rally with Fry in March and held a tele-town hall with him last week. He called Rice a “RINO” — Republican in Name Only — and said he was “respected by no one” and “laughed at in Washington.”

Rice said he gave a few interviews shortly after Jan. 6 to explain his vote, but then turned down some 200 before he decided to defend himself against Trump’s attacks in the final stretch of the race. He had become the antagonist.

“He tore up the Constitution — or tried to, acted like a dictator,” Rice said.

“I think that was one of the worst things, if not the worst, that a president has ever done in terms of attacking the Constitution and separation of powers,” he added. “I just couldn’t stand for that.”

In the year and a half since, Rice has held town halls and coffee events with constituents all over his district, where he said he’s explained his vote. In the closing days of the primary, he has held a series of barbecues where he touts his record bringing money to the region for flood relief and beach renourishment.

Addressing several dozen people at Big Mike’s Soul Food in Myrtle Beach, Rice didn’t mention Trump by name — but remarked that he’d “made his next election a little more difficult” by provoking a “fellow traveling the country with a whole vendetta list.”

Rice made his way around the room, chatting with each group there. His staff handed out mugs, towels and Rice Krispies treats, playing on their boss’ last name. Some of the attendees were longtime supporters and extended family members.

At least one was a Democrat who showed up at the event because she plans to vote for Rice in the GOP primary. “He’s a constitutionalist,” said Gina Davis, who recently moved from Maryland.

Win or lose, Rice said he is completely at peace with his decision. He believes Trump’s standing is diminishing in the GOP and he hopes he can inspire others to take a stand against him.

He may have already done that. Rice said Meijer, the only freshman Republican who voted to impeach, told him he was standing in the House chamber anxiously contemplating the looming impeachment vote, when “this tall guy from South Carolina leans over me and hits yes.” Meijer told Rice he thought, “If he did that, I can do that too.”

“He had been in Congress for about two or three weeks,” Rice said of Meijer. “What a brave guy. What a selfless guy.”

For all the friendships that have strained, there are new ones he has forged. The 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach stay in touch via group text.

It also brought Rice into closer contact with another prominent South Carolinian who crossed their party’s leader. He was one of the first people to text Rice after his decision to buck Trump, writing to offer solidarity ahead of the coming months.

“Wow,” wrote Mark Sanford, the former governor and congressman, who lost his seat in 2018 by falling to a Trump-backed GOP primary challenger. “That’s a lonesome vote.”

* This article was originally published here