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GOP impeachment backers wrestle with their own political survival after Tom Rice’s loss

<i>Alex Brandon/AP</i><br/>After Rep. Tom Rice
Alex Brandon/AP
After Rep. Tom Rice

By Melanie Zanona, CNN

After Rep. Tom Rice became the first electoral victim of Donald Trump‘s revenge campaign against the Republicans who voted to impeach him, a GOP colleague who had also backed the former President’s impeachment reached out to the South Carolina lawmaker and attempted to console him.

“I told him afterward, I said, ‘So much for the adage that members of Congress are more concerned about their next election than their job here,'” retiring Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan recalled telling Rice, in a nod to the fact that his impeachment vote is likely what cost him in last week’s Republican primary for South Carolina’s 7th Congressional District.

While Upton’s comments were meant to lift Rice’s spirits, they also serve as a reality check for the House’s remaining pro-impeachment Republicans fighting for survival in competitive primaries: supporting Trump’s impeachment — and continuing to forcefully and publicly rebuke the former President, like Rice did — is politically perilous in today’s GOP.

“You impeach the Ultra MAGA king, you get the boot,” said firebrand Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, a Trump ally and vocal supporter of the attempts to overturn the 2020 election.

The so-called impeachment 10 — who still keep in touch through a group chat and have offered each other advice and comfort amid a barrage of attacks from Trump and his allies — are wrestling with their own political survivals after watching their numbers dwindle. At least half of them won’t return to Congress next year, with Rice losing his primary to a Trump-backed challenger and four of them opting to retire instead of duke it out, although some of those decisions were influenced by redistricting.

Now, in hopes of stanching the bleeding, these remaining Republicans are trying to discern what, if any, lessons can be learned from Rice’s demoralizing — if not somewhat expected — loss.

There could be at least one bright spot for the group: California Rep. David Valadao, who voted to impeach Trump but has kept his head down since then, appears likely to have edged out a far-right challenger for a spot in the general election as counting from the state’s June 7 top-two primary continues. But Valadao did not have to compete against anyone endorsed by Trump, and his district is far less conservative than Rice’s deep-red seat in northeast South Carolina.

“We have totally different types of districts, we have totally different types of election processes,” Valadao said. “Everyone handles their situation differently.”

Upton expressed optimism Sunday when asked by CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” if there would be any House Republicans left willing to stand up to Trump after the midterms.

“We’ll see when these primaries are over. But I think there’ll be some of the 10 that are standing,” he said.

Still, between Rice and Valadao, there’s a growing consensus that the key to survival after crossing Trump is to mute the public criticism and focus on hyperlocal issues.

“If I were (Rice), I would have discussed the issues,” said Rep. Joe Wilson, a fellow South Carolina Republican. “Him and Trump actually agreed on the issues. The best that could have been done is to emphasize the issues.”

The impeachment Republicans who are still staring down primary challenges later this summer seem to be heeding that exact advice, wary of centering their campaigns on an anti-Trump playbook.

Rep. Dan Newhouse, who represents Washington state, told CNN: “We’ve got a strategy in place focusing on the issues that matter most to my constituents.

Freshman Rep. Peter Meijer of Michigan said he’s cognizant of the outcomes of other races but wouldn’t say how that’s affecting his own campaign strategy.

“Every district is different, every challenger is different. So I’m not going to get into campaign strategy. But we’re very mindful of what we’ve seen in other races,” he told CNN.

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, another Washington state lawmaker who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the January 6 insurrection, almost became a witness in the Senate trial after revealing what House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told her about his private conversation with Trump as a mob was storming the US Capitol. But since then, she’s mostly avoided the national limelight and any Trump talk, opting to return to her focus on local issues.

Asked whether she’s worried that Rice’s primary defeat is a warning sign for her own race, Herrera Beutler told CNN: “I feel good about it.”

Rice did not return a request for comment, and he was not in the Capitol following his primary defeat. He did, however, turn to a familiar face to serve as his proxy for floor votes: Meijer.

One notable exception to the keep-your-head-down strategy among the impeachment Republicans is Wyoming Rep. Liz. Cheney, who has pulled no punches since voting to impeach Trump last year. Her continued public criticism of Trump’s election lies cost Cheney her spot in House GOP leadership. And she has taken on a high-profile role on the House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, serving as its vice chair alongside Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi.

By contrast, most of the other impeachment 10 have kept the select committee at an arm’s length. Cheney and retiring Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who also serves on the panel, were the only Republicans who supported the creation of the select committee. And most of them have stayed relatively silent about the slew of damning revelations about Trump’s attempts to stay in power that have come out during the panel’s string of public hearings.

But notably, even Cheney’s first two campaign ads have been laser-focused on local issues — not her work on the January 6 committee or warnings about Trump being a threat to democracy. Cheney is considered to be the most vulnerable of the remaining impeachment Republicans, with Trump and his allies putting considerable energy into defeating her in her ruby-red Wyoming district. But powerful names in the GOP establishment have lined up to support Cheney, who has built a massive war chest and is pitching herself as a champion for Wyoming voters.

Still, Trump and his allies have seized on Rice’s primary defeat as a sign of momentum for the MAGA wing.

“Same thing’s going to happen in Wyoming to Virginia ‘resident’ Liz Cheney, that happened in South Carolina to Congressman ‘Impeach Master’ Tom Rice, who lost as an incumbent by 28 points!” Trump posted on social media last week.

Another recent example of walking the Trump tight rope is freshman Rep. Nancy Mace. In a bit of split screen from Rice, Mace, also a South Carolina Republican, beat back a Trump-endorsed primary opponent after drawing Trump’s ire for strongly condemning his role in the January 6 attack on the Capitol, though Mace did not vote for impeachment.

Throughout her campaign, Mace emphasized her conservative voting record, support for Trump’s policies and endorsements from other big-name Republicans such as former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Mace even filmed a video outside Trump Tower in New York, calling herself one of “Trump’s earliest supporters.” While the other impeachment Republicans haven’t gone nearly as far, Mace has shown the political upsides to softening her Trump criticism in a competitive Republican primary.

However, lawmakers caution that every district and race is different. And, unlike Rice, GOP leadership has been looking for ways to boost Meijer and Herrera Beutler, who represent swing districts that could affect the GOP’s effort to recapture the House majority. Still, even with party leaders on their side, their victories are hardly guaranteed.

“You’ve got to work hard,” Upton said. “And the others, I mean, they’re working really hard.”

This story has been updated with additional reaction.

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CNN’s Veronica Stracqualursi contributed to this report.

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