News & Politics

Inside Nancy Mace’s Apparently Bottomless Quest for Attention

“She’s not a real legislator," one ex-staffer says. "She’s just using her office to get on TV.”

Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Last July, while speaking at a prayer breakfast in South Carolina, Congresswoman Nancy Mace went off-script. To a roomful of conservative Christians, the two-term Republican announced that when she woke up that morning, her then-fiancé made a bid for sex. “And I was like, ‘No, baby, we don’t got time for that this morning,’ ” she said. “ ‘I’ve got to get to the prayer breakfast, and I’ve got to be on time.’ ” Mace added that her fiancé could wait—“I’ll see him later tonight”—before reminding the host, Senator Tim Scott, of her sacrifice: “I was here early today for you, Tim.”

These remarks landed poorly. The room grew tense, and then came a flurry of disgusted tweets and negative news stories. But while the off-color sex anecdote was ad-libbed, it was not—strictly speaking—a gaffe. “I think she knew what she was doing,” says one former staffer who was at the event. “Headlines, bad or good, are still headlines. She wanted to generate a headline from the prayer breakfast, and she was able to do so by being shocking.”

For many current members of Congress, governing is no longer the goal. Rather than legislative operations, some congressional offices have become PR firms for attention-hungry members who see their job not so much as passing laws but as building a personal brand. Sure, self-promotion has always been part of the gig, but since the onset of the Trump era, the celebrity is often the point.

In Congress, the effects have begun to show. If things continue apace, this Congress will be the least productive in the modern era; last year, the number of laws enacted was historically low. Nonetheless, scores of newish members—Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz—are constantly in the news, brazenly seeking publicity with odd antics and provocative remarks.

As a case study, Nancy Mace is ideal. During her three years in Congress, she’s had a couple of legislative accomplishments: Last year, the House passed a cybersecurity bill she sponsored, and in 2022 she got a post office in her district renamed. But she’s far better known as a fixture of political talk shows who loves a headline-courting stunt. Also, crucially, a bunch of her ex-employees are disgruntled, which makes it possible to report on how her office works: the ways she earns media, why she’s so thirsty for it, and what has broken down in Congress to make attention-seeking a plausible substitute for governing.

Five former Mace staffers spoke with Washingtonian for this story—all anonymously, since dishing to a reporter about work is considered a real violation on the Hill. They seemed eager to talk for two reasons. First, they believe she mistreats her staff: impossible expectations, dysfunctional micromanaging, tirades when things go wrong. And second, they think she’s unfit for her position. All five were outraged that, as one ex-staffer put it, “she’s not a real legislator. She’s not a legitimate or serious member of Congress—she’s just using her office to get on TV.”

Even before arriving in Congress, Nancy Mace knew how to court publicity. Actually, she was a professional; she’d run a PR firm in Charleston for years. Former congressional staffers say that’s apparent in her approach. According to one of them, the office’s attitude toward the media is that as long as you’re in the news, as this source puts it, “people will think you’re important and they’ll vote for you,” regardless of whether you’re getting anything done.

Last November, the Daily Beast reported on an employee handbook that, among other things, laid out unusually grueling media quotas for Mace’s communications team. Comms staffers were expected to book her on national television at least nine times a week and in local media at least six times a week. The magnitude of media attention Mace demanded, one former communications staffer tells Washingtonian, was “something I’d never even heard of in my political career.”

On television and in social-media posts, Mace was apparently meticulous with her appearance. “She would say that the look we’re going for is ‘hot mama,’ ” as one former senior staffer recalls it. “She would even use the word ‘MILF’ sometimes.” For TV hits, Mace sometimes wears low-cut shirts. This staffer remembers her saying things along the lines of “If I look good, people won’t hear what I say.”

As one of 435 representatives, though, an individual member will often struggle to make news. Because Congress is so gridlocked, new members can’t usually get famous by passing bills. Ideological consistency won’t necessarily grab coverage, either; when you vote and opine in unexpected ways, it’s more likely that reporters will call. “A lot of these members think the only way to make headlines is to generate personal narratives, to stand out and be different from everyone else,” explains a former Mace staffer. “The way to do that is to be shocking—the quote-unquote mavericks. That’s the reason they generate news.”

One notable example is Mace’s vote to oust Kevin McCarthy from the speakership. Of the handful of Republicans who opted to throw him out, Mace was the biggest surprise. Until then, her legislative team had a good working relationship with the speaker—her cybersecurity bill was the last thing to pass under McCarthy—so the defection made headlines. It got her booked on TV. Publicly, Mace claimed that McCarthy had broken promises to her, but “in my opinion, there was no other reason that she did that than to get media attention,” one former communications staffer says. Mace voted against McCarthy, another ex-staffer says, “because she saw all the attention Matt Gaetz was getting and decided to join.”

In the days following the McCarthy vote, Gaetz was the media darling of the ouster, which apparently frustrated Mace. A couple of stunts ensued. First, she appeared on the Hill with a bright-red “A” on her shirt. This “scarlet letter,” she told reporters, was a response to the backlash she’d faced for shivving McCarthy—but whatever message she meant to send wasn’t clear. In The Scarlet Letter, the “A” marks an adulterer. (“Folks, this is why we shouldn’t ban books,” read one viral tweet.)

The next day, Mace remained in the limelight, this time for going after Steve Scalise. In opposing his bid for the speakership, she resurfaced an old allegation—whose veracity is murky—that he had once spoken at a white-supremacist conference. This was not the behavior of a team player trying to mend rifts within the party. Fellow Republicans were incensed, but it did get Mace booked on Jake Tapper. “Instead of the crisis that was actually occurring on the Hill, the focus became Nancy,” one former employee says.

For Mace’s legislative team, this series of headlines was murder. “We lost all credibility legislatively to work with anybody,” one of them recalls. “After she decided to focus solely on political stunts and PR, our agenda was dead.” In his view, that didn’t matter so much to Mace. “There was no afterthought [of] ‘Okay, here’s what we were trying to accomplish, how can we still do that?’ She didn’t really care.”

Aside from the McCarthy vote, Mace is perhaps best known for her response to January 6. That day, she was among the first Republicans to denounce President Trump for whipping up a riot. But even then, two ex-employees say, her priority was attention. “She was begging senior staff, including myself, to let her leave the office so she could,” as one ex-senior staffer remembers Mace saying, “go get punched in the face by the rioters.” Another former staffer independently confirms the account. Both interpret it the same way: Mace was willing to risk her safety in order to be on the news.

Reached for comment on all of the former staffers’ allegations in this story, a Mace spokesperson emailed a statement: “We refrain from engaging in discussions about opinions; instead, we believe it is crucial to focus on Nancy Mace’s remarkable legislative achievements and her strong ties to the district, which hold utmost significance for the people of [South Carolina’s] Lowcountry.” Of the former staffers who spoke to Washingtonian, she wrote, “We extend our best wishes to these individuals as they embark on their future career endeavors.”

Plenty of Democrats cultivate national brands—and some make vexing headlines from time to time—but these days, the most outlandish folks in Congress are on the right. “Any Republican who’s serious will tell you that Democrats are better able to keep their agenda front and center and not let the circus get to them,” says one of Mace’s former staffers. “They have a better apparatus for keeping [members] in check.”

Among Republicans, he says, “there’s no fear of the teachers anymore, because the classroom bullies are running the show.” Party leadership can still dangle the traditional carrots—plum committee assignments, fundraising help—but many Republican members no longer bite. And why would they? Republican voters, by and large, despise the DC establishment. They’re excited when their congresswoman flouts the rules.  

That’s one reason why, as reelection approaches this fall, Mace’s antics could get weirder. Another is her growing financial incentive to act out. When big donors give money, they expect results, and if a member becomes too erratic—or begins to seem ineffective—those checks disappear. Voting to oust McCarthy, a former Mace staffer says, alienated establishment donors. Because of that, Mace may need to court small-dollar donors, who tend to be more in line with the base. “You go from the people who want to get things done to people who want things to continue to be broken,” that staffer says. “The way to keep the small dollars coming is to keep doing crazy things—to fuel the chaos even more.”

Leaning into mayhem seems a precarious path, as Mace’s district is somewhat purple. But if she loses reelection, she’ll probably be fine. One former employee speculates that she’ll slide over to Fox News as a talking head, which might actually suit her better than Congress: “Being on television—it’s what she’s always wanted anyway.”

Sylvie McNamara
Staff Writer