By Hastings Wyman –
South Carolina has an incumbent governor, but as lieutenant governor, Henry McMaster acceded to the office upon the resignation of Gov. Nikki Haley (R), now Ambassador to the United Nations. As a result, other ambitious Republicans do not feel obligated to stand aside and give McMaster a free ride back into office. “There are a lot of South Carolina leaders waiting their turn to run,” says Charleston Mercury publisher Charles Waring, “and they are going to run.”
Nevertheless, McMaster has major assets. Greenville consultant “Chip” Felkel says that McMaster is “going to have some deference” as the current governor. “The power of incumbency is incredibly important,” especially in fundraising. McMaster had raised $160,000 by the 4th Quarter, a figure sure to grow.
In addition, McMaster will be in the news on a regular basis. Most of the publicity will be good, although the indictment of prominent Republican state Sen. John Courson for allegedly depositing a refund of unspent campaign funds into his personal account won’t help. The scandal could expand to affect McMaster, since he and Courson use the same campaign consultant, Richard Quinn & Associates. McMaster has stood by both Courson and the Quinn firm, which has not been indicted.
McMaster, 69, has run for statewide office six times, winning three and losing three. He was elected attorney general and lieutenant governor, but he lost his 2010 gubernatorial bid. “Henry is well-liked,” says Club for Growth’s former president Chad Walldorf, who touts the prospects of potential contender Catherine Templeton, “but a lot of people comfortable with him as lieutenant governor did not expect him to reach the governor’s mansion.”
McMaster’s ace in the hole, however, may be President Trump. McMaster was the first statewide elected official in the nation to endorse Trump for president. Indeed, unconfirmed rumors suggest that Trump appointed Haley to the UN post so that McMaster could become governor. In any case, the backing of Trump supporters, or possibly of Trump himself, could be a big plus for McMaster in the Republican Primary.
Despite McMaster’s advantages, Republican state Senator and former lieutenant governor Yancey McGill has already announced for governor, and a second contender, Templeton, an experienced state government administrator, is expected to announce soon.
McGill, 63, has significant political muscle in his corner, including the backing of state Sen. Hugh Leatherman (R), state Senate president and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. McGill raised $329,000 in the 4th quarter, with $150,000 on hand. He reportedly has some heavy-weight GOPers raising money for his campaign.
On the downside, McGill was a Democrat until last year and doesn’t have the network of county-level GOPers across the state that years in the party can provide. “We’ve got two
Republicans and a Democrat running in the Republican Primary,” quipped Walldorf. McGill “would be a tough sell to Republicans.” However, he is a conservative Democrat who has often cooperated with Republicans.
The third Republican contender is Templeton, who postponed a scheduled January announcement until the spring. Templeton headed the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and served as director of the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. An accomplished anti-union lawyer, she is known for her opposition to unions, a popular stance in the Palmetto State, particularly among Republicans.
Says Walldorf, McMaster “will have a very dynamic challenger in Catherine Templeton. She will surprise people with her statewide network and her fundraising prowess.” Waring describes Templeton as “very impressive,” pointing to her two posts in state government. He adds, “I went to a fundraiser for her; it was jammed. … I think she’s formidable.”
An attractive woman (it shouldn’t matter, but it does), Templeton is the mother of three children. She is also a hunter, a nice touch in the Palmetto State. She is a resident of Mount Pleasant, a suburb of Charleston, although she grew up in Irmo in Lexington County, a Republican stronghold.
Templeton “is “very impressive,” says Felkel, “a go-getter,” but “she had a better chance before McMaster became the incumbent.”
One worry for McMaster: Will McGill and Templeton combined prevent him from winning in the first primary, thus forcing him into a runoff, often a weak circumstance for an incumbent?
On the Democratic side, folks are hoping that the Courson indictment will help them, especially since it comes on top of the December 2016 indictment of state Rep. Jim Merrill (R) and a 2014 indictment of then-House Speaker Bobby Harrell (R). The scandals “will have a major impact on the 2018 elections …The potential is great to really overturn the apple cart here and start to build something new,” Democratic state chair Jaime Harrison told The State newspaper.
Moreover, there is widespread expectation that the current investigation that snared Courson is only the first shoe to drop. (One Republican response: The special prosecutor, David Pascoe, is a Democrat, and partisanship may be at play.) A Democratic press release on the Courson indictment contended that GOP control of state politics illustrates that “absolute power has corrupted absolutely.”
Waring Howe, Charleston attorney and former Democratic National Committeeman, points out that due to partisan redistricting, lawmakers are secure in their jobs, but can continue to raise campaign contributions. “It’s tempting to have a large sum of money
that they aren’t supposed to enjoy … They are untouchable and non-accountable, and get reckless in their behavior.”
In the wake of these GOP problems, the lone potential Democratic contender is state Rep. James E. Smith, Jr., 50, an attorney from Columbia. He has served in the legislature for 20 years. He is “a heckuva nice guy and works across party lines … He has a sterling reputation,” says Howe. Smith served a combat tour of 17 months in Afghanistan and is a member of the South Carolina Army National Guard. In December, Smith traveled to New Orleans for a Democratic Governors Association meeting in preparation for the race.
However, says Howe, “South Carolina is a strong Republican state. Charles Manson could run as a Republican and win.” But he adds that “2018 may the year voters say, ‘Maybe we need to try the other brand.’ ”