The Palmetto State has two lively gubernatorial primaries this year. The first primary is on June 12, with possible, perhaps probable, runoffs on June 26. At issue is whether the establishments of the two parties will continue to lead them, or whether, as is the case with GOP, an outsider will take the reins of leadership. For the Democrats, will the party move left to satisfy the angst of many Palmetto State liberals who have long been on the outside looking in?
Republicans: Gov. Henry McMaster
In 2017, when then-Gov. Nikki Haley (R) left the governor’s mansion to serve as President Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster (R) succeeded her as governor. McMaster has been elected state attorney general and lieutenant governor, but failed in two earlier statewide contests, for US Senator in 1986 and for lieutenant governor in 1990. He also served as state Republican chairman.
McMaster’s approval rating is 46% among the general population, according to the most recent Winthrop University Poll. In an early April poll by Target Insyght, a Michigan firm, McMaster led with 46%, followed by Templeton with 22%, Bryant 6%, McGill 4% and Warren 1%. While this puts him substantially above his competitors, it is not enough to elect him the first go round; he would have to compete in a runoff.
Nevertheless, says a close associate of the governor, “Any other candidate would kill to be in the place the governor has.” That place is right next to President Trump. McMaster’s website features a photograph of the President and McMaster, the first statewide elected official to endorse Trump in 2016. The headline, “Join President Trump on Team McMaster!”
McMaster can also brag about the state’s economy, including billions of dollars of new business investment in the state on his watch. And for the first time under a new state law, he has named a running mate for lieutenant governor, Greenville businesswoman – and Trump supporter – Pamela Evette. In addition to adding a woman to his ticket in a state when women in politics is rapidly becoming the norm, at 50, Evette is twenty years younger than McMaster, who is 70.
In sum, “I think it’s McMaster’s to lose,” says “Chip” Felkel, a public policy consultant based in Greenville. “If there’s a runoff, if people are not voting for the incumbent, the likelihood is they will go the other way. No incumbent likes a runoff. It’s hard to get your people out again.”
“Internal polls show McMaster remains incredibly vulnerable,” says Matt Moore, former GOP state Republican chairman and partner in First Tuesday Strategies, a Columbia-based political consulting firm. Moreover, adds Moore, “The scandals in the legislature have not helped [the Republicans]. It’s hard to argue that McMaster is not tied to them,” a reference to indictments on corruption charges in 2017 of a prominent Republican consultant, two Republican legislators and several former legislators, also Republicans.
Catherine Templeton is a highly successful Charleston lawyer whose background in government includes stints in the administration of Gov. Haley, who appointed her Secretary of Labor and later head of the Department of Health and Environmental Control. While Haley has not endorsed her, she has praised her, saying that Templeton “hasn’t just been good at anything, she’s been great at everything.”
One of Templeton’s supporters, Chad Walldorf, former chairman of the Board of Economic Advisors, says that she “is in a very good position. … From the polls I’ve seen, McMaster’s support is very shallow.
The electorate seems more desirous of change.” He points out that “She’s been traveling the state a lot, adding, “She’s polling much better at this point than Nikki Haley was eight years ago.”
She also gets praise from former GOP state chairman Moore: Templeton is “an excellent fundraiser and communicator.” He adds, “Outsiders are all the rage these days.
Says Democratic South Carolina Democratic National Committeeman Boyd Brown, “If the governor doesn’t get 43% or 44% of the vote, he’s toast in a runoff. It’s up to Templeton to force a runoff.”
The first television ad in the Republican race was called “Buzzsaw” and was paid for by the American Future Fund, an Iowa-based conservative group. The ad referred to Templeton as the “liberals’ worst nightmare.”
McMaster’s campaign quickly counter-attacked, citing the Fund for its anti-Trump stance in 2016, and put online a video of clips from the group’s ads attacking Trump before the 2016 GOP convention.
Felkel also said, “I just can’t see how anyone can be Jeb Bush’s chairman for South Carolina and have voters think of her as a Trumpian. That’s just a stretch,” a stretch the McMaster campaign has called a flip-flop.
The McMaster campaign attacked Templeton for not releasing enough information about how much money she was paid for her state government work and how much she has made as a consultant.
Says the McMaster associate, “There’s plenty more there.”
John Warren, a Greenville businessman, is “well known in the Greenville area,” notes Felkel, who is based in Greenville. He adds that Greenville and Spartanburg make up 20% of the Republican Primary vote. But adds, “Warren should have gotten in sooner.” Last week, Warren, a Marine veteran who led 300-plus combat missions in Iraq, was endorsed by a group of 60 veterans. There will be a competitive congressional Republican Primary in the 4th District to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of US Rep. Trey Gowdy (R), which could boost Warren’s vote.
Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant is a hard-right conservative, but his campaign has gained little traction so far. However, he and former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill, even running fourth and fifth, could get enough votes to help deny McMaster a majority, thus giving Templeton a shot at victory in the runoff.
The Democrats: James Smith
At his annual fish fry at the state Democratic Convention last Friday night, US Rep. Jim Clyburn (D) gave a strong endorsement of former state House Minority Leader James Smith for governor. “[T]he best way to tell what a man will do is to look at what he has done. When you look at his record in the legislature, it’s a record that all of us can be proud of.”
Clyburn’s endorsement at the convention sent “a strong message that the state’s top Democratic officials are solidifying” behind Smith, wrote Post & Courier reporter Jamie Lovegrove. In March, Clyburn and Smith toured parts of the congressman’s district together.
With the bulk of the Democratic Primary electorate in Richland and Orangeburg counties, both with large African-American populations, Smith has a significant advantage.
When Smith entered the convention hall, he was accompanied by the Benedict College marching band, then showed an endorsement video from former Vice President Joe Biden.
“James has a great personal story to tell,” says Democrat Brown. Smith is an Afghan War combat veteran.
Waring Howe, a Charleston lawyer and former Democratic National Committeeman, says “James Smith is very well regarded and widely regarded as the frontrunner. There is a question whether he can get the nomination without a runoff.” He adds, “The corruption in the legislature helps the Democrats… Smith can make the case for cleaning up the corruption.”
Marguerite Willis is a high-powered lawyer specializing in business negotiations. She is also the former First Lady of Florence, where her husband, Frank Willis, was mayor. She is wealthy and can virtually self-fund her campaign.
Her website shows she supports a number of issues popular with Democratic voters, including passing an equal-pay-for-women law in South Carolina, protecting abortion rights for women, expanding Medicaid, legalizing medical marijuana, and banning assault weapons and raising the legal age for buying firearms to 21, except for those used in hunting.
“Marguerite Willis has yet to give a good reason to vote for her,” says Brown. But if you are a Democrat with decidedly left-leaning views, there’s plenty of reasons in the Issues section on her website. Whether these views could prevail in a General Election is another matter.
Phil Noble is a long-time political consultant and Democratic activist. He has a wide range of contacts from his campaign consulting. He ran a losing campaign for lieutenant governor in 1994.
Charleston City Councilman Rodney Williams is a strong Noble partisan. “The Democratic Party needs to take a long, long look at what’s really wrong with the Democratic Party,” says Williams “We need a candidate who can speak to the issues and I believe it’s Phil Noble… You’ve got to debate the issues. We took a different approach twice with Vincent Sheheen, and he got nowhere.’
Williams, who is African American, added, “I don’t think African Americans are in tune with Smith… African Americans are not united behind anybody.”
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of the late Bobby Kennedy and a former lieutenant governor of Maryland, endorsed Noble and made campaign stops with him in Columbia, Denmark and Charleston.
The Target Insyght poll among Democrats showed Noble and Smith at 27% each, with 21% for Willis. But, says one insider, “That poll has no credibility. Noble is a severe underdog.” And says Democratic official Brown, “The money shows that it’s a two-person race. Phil Noble is a three-legged mule in the horse race. Marguerite Willis can self-fund. Smith’s money comes from a lot of contributors.”
On the GOP side, McMaster raised $741,000 in the 1st Quarter, with nearly $3 million cash-on-hand.
Templeton raised $558,000 and had $2.5 million on hand.
John Warren raised $660,000, with $500,000 coming from his own pockets.
Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant raised $22,000, with $183,000 on hand.
And former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill raised $9,000, with a mere $423 on hand.
For the Democrats, Smith raised $403,000 in the 1st Quarter, leaving him with $622,000 cash-on-hand. He has more individual contributors than the seven other candidates combined.
Willis raised $130,000 by March 31; she had $598,000 on hand, $460,000 of it her own money.
Noble raised $85,000 in the 1st Quarter and had $50,000 on hand. According to press reports, his campaign says that he has some 40 fundraisers scheduled in the coming weeks.
For the Democrats, “If the Democratic nominee is Smith, he has a chance. Political corruption is attached more and more to the party in power. No Democratic legislator has been indicted,” says Howe. “The Republican brand has been tarnished.”
“The best hope for Democrats is a nasty Republican Primary and for the Democrats to nominate someone palatable to moderate conservatives,” says Felkel. “That would be Smith.”
If Willis or Noble becomes the nominee, a long shot at this point, the Democrats will likely conduct a more aggressive campaign, at least issue-wise. Will that work? We will be in uncharted territory.
Nevertheless, acknowledges GOPer Moore, “Democrats are more motivated this year.”
For the GOP, if Governor McMaster is the nominee, he can probably benefit substantially from Trump’s support. “Donald Trump’s numbers in this state are just phenomenal,” says the associate of the governor. “He’s endorsed the governor. The President is planning on coming down to do a rally for the governor. McMaster was the first elected official to endorse Donald Trump in the primary. It’s good for Trump to have a favorable governor in South Carolina.”
If Templeton or Warren win the Republican nomination, it will be a new ball game for the Grand Old Party. Either will have to make peace with the longtime party workhorse that they have just booted out of office. Then make peace with President Trump. Templeton has already positioned her self as a Trump supporter and her rapport with Ambassador Haley might help her cement that relationship. Warren is an unknown quantity but may have the funds to become known. Stay tuned.