A year ago, Kevin Bryant was almost voted out of office. Now the Anderson Republican is thinking about running for governor in 2018.
Bryant eked out a razor-thin victory last June over former Pendleton Mayor Carol Burdette in the GOP primary for the South Carolina Senate District 3 seat. He won the hard-fought race by only 370 votes.
After a series of events set in motion by President Donald Trump's election, Bryant became lieutenant governor shortly after starting his fourth Senate term in January.
Bryant, a 50-year-old pharmacist at the family-owned Bryant Pharmacy and Supply, said a growing number of people are encouraging him to run against Gov. Henry McMaster. He said his supporters believe that his conservative views, business experience and healthcare knowledge would make him a strong candidate.
"We'll just have to see," Bryant said, adding that he will decide this summer about whether to enter the race. "I haven't closed the door."
One obstacle he faces is a lack of name recognition in other parts of South Carolina, according to two experienced Upstate politicians with close ties to Bryant.
Dr. Henry Jordan, an Anderson surgeon who is a former chairman of the Anderson County Republican Party, wonders if Bryant is getting bad advice. Jordan urged Bryant to take over as leader of the county GOP in 1997 and then suggested he seek the lieutenant governor's post several months ago. He said they haven't talked about the governor's race.
"In politics, you can't help making enemies," Jordan said. "And sometimes your enemies will tell you to do something that is not in your best interests."
Jordan said Bryant is a "bright guy" who would make an outstanding governor.
But he also said McMaster is a "brilliant politician" who is better known than Bryant. Back in 1986, McMaster defeated Jordan in a GOP U.S. Senate primary before being soundly beaten by Democrat Ernest "Fritz" Hollings in the general election.
McMaster's experience running in statewide races "obviously plays in the governor's favor," said state Sen. Richard Cash, a Powdersville Republican who filled Bryant's former seat. Bryant endorsed Cash in an April runoff that he won against Burdette.
If elected, Cash said, Bryant could "do a great job" as governor.
Cash knows first-hand how hard it is to run against an established political figure. He unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in 2014.
Dave Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University, said he is a "little surprised" that Bryant is thinking about running against McMaster.
"I wouldn't think that would be a very wise thing to do," said Woodard, adding that few voters outside the Upstate know about Bryant.
McMaster, a former state attorney general who was elected as lieutenant governor in 2014, replaced Gov. Nikki Haley when Trump chose her to serve as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. State senators then voted to make Bryant lieutenant governor under an arrangement orchestrated by the chamber's leader, Sen. Hugh Leatherman, a Republican from Florence.
Former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill and former state Department of Health and Environmental Control Director Catherine Templeton have already started raising money to challenge McMaster in the June 2018 Republican primary. At this point, no Democrats are running for governor.
Laying the groundwork? Bryant spoke at nine GOP county conventions across South Carolina this spring, as well as the state Republican convention in Columbia.
Wearing his familiar bow tie, Bryant began his remarks at the GOP convention in Oconee County with an often-repeated quip about his dual vocations as a pharmacist and an elected leader.
"Before you, you have a drug dealer and a politician," he said. "That is about as low as it gets."
As is typically the case, the joke drew hearty laughter.
Bryant told the Oconee Republicans that his enduring mission in politics is "to promote your liberty and to protect your wallet."