Should Trump-Backed Katie Arrington Be Underdog In Primary Odds?

Written By Evan Scrimshaw on May 23, 2022
katie arrington

One of the more interesting Republican primaries coming up has been an under-the-radar battles, but it will tell a lot about the future of the GOP.  South Carolina’s District 1 is going to the polls Tuesday, June 14 to pick their Republican Congressional candidate in this likely, but not safe, GOP seat. Incumbent Nancy Mace is battling Trump-endorsed Katie Arrington.

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SC-01 Republican Primary Odds

CandidatePredictIt PriceImplied Odds
Nancy Mace$0.66-194
Katie Arrington$0.44+127

Nancy Mace

Mace won the seat for the first time in 2020, beating Democratic incumbent Joe Cunningham, who had first won the seat in the Democratic landslide of 2018. Cunningham was widely expected to win a second term in his Trump-supporting district, including releasing an internal poll showing him up 13% in mid-October.

Then the polls all turned out to be wrong, Cunningham massively underperformed his polling, and Mace won by accident – the beneficiary of a political environment much better for Republicans than expected.

Mace’s victory, off the back of Cunningham winning less Trump-Cunningham voters than expected, was a shock.

Her first week in office was chaotic, with Mace on CNN the night of January 6 to denounce the insurrection that day. Speaking to Don Lemon, she not only denounced it but gave a full-throated reprimand of Donald Trump and his base, the same base that got her elected in 2020, both in the GOP Primary and in the general election.

That said, the next week Mace started to walk back her full-throated defense of democracy and the Constitution, voting against Donald Trump’s impeachment in the House and defending it on the basis that the process was “rushed”.

Mace’s unwillingness to take and hold a firm position on this earned her a pro-Trump primary challenger, Katie Arrington – who has the distinction of having primaried the last Republican incumbent in SC-01.

Katie Arrington

Arrington successfully primaried Mark Sanford, the former governor of South Carolina whose South American mistress ended his gubernatorial term. He has since relaunched his career as a thoughtful, but not dogmatic, conservative Congressman.

Sanford was an occasional critic of the first two years of the Trump Administration, willing to articulate conservative principles even when those principles came into conflict with the policy goals of the Trump administration.

Sanford ended up getting a challenge from Arrington, who ran on the suggestion that he was insufficiently conservative and disloyal to the President. Sanford ended up losing his primary to Arrington by 4%.

Arrington, buoyed by the President’s endorsement and the primary victory, ended up losing to Cunningham in the General Election, on the back of Cunningham’s moderate campaign and the generally bad environment Republicans had in 2018.

SC-01 Outlook

This primary is the exact kind of race where the GOP has to worry – not so much because of 2022, but certainly because of 2024.

District 1, under its mostly unchanged lines since 2020, voted for the President by 9%, and is trending left quickly. While unlikely that Democrats could win this seat with the wrong Republican nominee in 2022, if the GOP nominates a weak candidate, it could put the seat in play in 2024, easily.

Mace will be running on her voting record, which has mostly been impeccable – but so was Sanford’s, and the voters tossed him in 2018. Mace will also point out that Arrington has already cost Republicans the seat once, which is true (but also meaningless).

In reality, the winner of this primary will win the seat in November, and fears about electability have tended to do very badly in recent Republican politics – with the Pennsylvania GOP’s nomination of literal insurrectionist Doug Mastriano last week being the most recent example.

Banking on a Republican primary electorate to focus on electability in a Trump +9 district makes little sense, especially when Mace underran Trump by 4.5% in 2020. Given that electability is not some golden goose for Mace’s campaign, she’ll have to win this against the endorsement of the former President, whose power in GOP primaries is waning, but is still strong.

Banking on incumbents is less and less useful these days – look at the way that Madison Cawthorn just lost in North Carolina – and the blithe assumption that primary voters will back incumbents doesn’t hold now in the same way it used to.

For Mace, her voting record is good – she voted against the bipartisan infrastructure bill, she voted against impeachment, and she has been generally a reliable NO vote for the Republican leadership against Joe Biden and his agenda. The problem is, she misread the mood of her party.

Mace’s Don Lemon appearance is instructive – she was genuinely outraged by the insurrection and the events of January 6, and said as much. She was genuine, authentic, and real in that moment, and she thought that the pro-democracy part of her party would reassert itself. It hasn’t.

Mace is now trying an inauthentic pivot to the right which nobody is believing, and Arrington is a good primary candidate who knows the way to beat a conservative, but not Trumpian, Republican incumbent.

Katie Arrington has one problem though. Mace has more than double her cash on hand, but the value of a Trump endorsement is worth more than that.

Maybe Mace wins one more term, because voters in District 1 don’t want to risk another Arrington primary challenge that could risk a Democratic member, but as I wrote about Cawthorn last month, the act of incurring a serious primary challenge is a sign that a serious primary challenge can beat you. Weakness begets weakness, and the fact that Mace can’t put away Arrington is a bad sign.

Mace might win, but betting on a Trump-endorsed challenger at an underdog price is a rare thing, and it’s the value. It’s worth a play given the price.

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