By Paul Gable
(Above picture L-R: Tom Rice, Heather Crawford, Seth McKinney, Brenda Bethune, Mark Lazarus, Cam Crawford and Russell Fry)
Ever since Tom Rice cast his vote to impeach President Donald Trump last January, political talk around Horry County has been about whether Rice could survive a challenge to reelection next year.
Almost immediately nine challengers announced they would challenge Rice in next year’s June Republican Primary for the nomination for the SC 7th Congressional District seat. Eight of the original nine remain to date.
Tomorrow night, another challenger, Russell Fry, long expected to throw his hat in the ring, will hold his campaign kickoff event.
Fry’s entry into the race is probably a signal that at least some of Rice’s past supporters no longer believe he is electable.
Both Rice and Fry have drawn from the same base of support in the county during past elections – the Chamber crowd and associated PACs (the special interest crowd), local business owners and the ‘old guard’ members of the HCGOP.
A number of the names listed as sponsors for Rice’s September 14, 2021 Campaign Kickoff event at the Dunes Club also show up as donors to past Fry campaigns, according to filings with the South Carolina Ethics Commission.
The close ties between past Rice and Fry campaigns are best demonstrated by two of Fry’s initial donors in his first special election for the SC House District 106 seat in 2015. One of those donors is none other than Wrenzie Rice, wife of Tom Rice. The other is Doug Wendel, the man probably most responsible for Rice first running for the new 7th Congressional District seat in 2012.
Both Rice and Fry have been strong supporters of Chamber’s number one goal the Interstate 73 project, although neither has been able to bring any significant funds, federal or state respectively, to the project. Both attempted to pressure Horry County Council to provide funding from local hospitality fee collections to completely fund construction of the road to the county line (approximately $500 million additional funding).
Fry has been present at Rice’s ‘Coffee with the Congressman’ events in District 106 to demonstrate close ties between local and state office holders from this area.
Both showed up at a photo op in Socastee during the sandbagging after Hurricane Florence in 2018, along with Heather and Cam Crawford, Fry’s business associates in the local political consulting firm Crescent Communications LLC, former county council chairman Mark Lazarus who used Crescent Communications in his unsuccessful 2018 reelection bid, Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune and Socastee High School senior Seth McKinney who was a main organizer of the sandbagging project. (The picture accompanying this story shows that photo). The politicians in the picture were all buddy-buddy at the time.
It is hard to see how that group remains buddies with the Fry announcement to challenge Rice. The Crawfords are in the consulting business with Fry, Lazarus is closer to Fry than Rice and has told several people he will support Fry and Fry’s choice of the Grand Strand Brewery for his kickoff event, the same venue used by Bethune recently for her campaign kickoff for reelection as mayor, is hardly a coincidence.
It is easy to deduct why many in the area call Fry a Rice clone (I called them peas from the same pod). Fry held off from criticizing Rice for voting to impeach the former president and even his statement last week announcing his candidacy was lukewarm criticism at best of the Rice vote.
Fry told the Associated Press, “He campaigned with President Trump and worked with President Trump and was always willing to use President Trump’s name for his reelection purposes, but he broke that trust. I think the people of the Grand Strand and the Pee Dee deserve someone they can trust again, and I think I’m that person.”
Much of the same could be said about Fry, ‘He campaigned with Rice and worked with Rice and was always willing to have his photo and name with Rice for reelection purposes.’
Can it not now be said Fry broke the trust with Rice?
Many of the local politicos are predicting if Rice should ultimately conclude he can’t win the nomination again because of the pushback from voters specifically because of his vote against Trump, Rice will drop out and throw his support and endorsement to Fry.
If Rice does not drop out, it is impossible to see a path where Rice and Fry would end up in a primary runoff election against each other for the nomination. Fry has a much smaller current electoral district, lack of name recognition outside his current District 106 and that, in the past, both have been supported by the same voters.
The conclusion is Myrtle Beach special interests are hedging their bet by having Fry run against Rice. Two peas from the same pod.