Catherine Templeton said her Confederate ancestors fought for freedom from federal control — not slavery. Then, a newspaper reporter told her something she did not know: Her ancestors owned slaves.
Gov. Henry McMaster is pushing a legislative proposal that would force S.C. cities and counties to promise they are not sanctuary cities harboring illegal immigrants — even though state law already bans sanctuary cities and McMaster admits he knows of none in South Carolina.
The 2018 race for governor is shaping up to be a master class in pandering as Republicans and Democrats fight to win the hearts and votes of the most die-hard voters among their parties' faithful, those who will cast ballots in June's primaries and decide who advances to November's general election.
In the GOP field, McMaster and Templeton are out front, GOP activists and political observers agree. The two are competing to be seen as the most aligned with President Donald Trump and with the pro-gun, anti-abortion and anti-illegal immigration GOP stalwarts who will vote in June's primary, typically a low-turnout affair.
Democrats are pandering, too. But their appeals are less pronounced, observers say. That is likely because the underdog party's candidates stand to alienate independent and moderate GOP voters if they swing too far to the left. The Democratic nominee will need to attract some of those voters to stand a chance of winning November's general election.
As the campaigns heat up, voters can expect more pandering as candidates "throw red meat to a certain group to get them motivated to support their candidacy," said Greenville GOP consultant Chip Felkel.
The candidates insist they are not pandering.
Instead, they say they simply are supporting policies that are important to the state.
“Because Catherine Templeton is standing up for conservative values on the campaign trail, we knew it would only be a matter of time until the liberal media engaged in name-calling," spokesman Mark Powell said.
"Despite being attacked by Al Sharpton and gun grabbers, Catherine Templeton remains dedicated to defending conservative principles no matter what insults are lobbed her way."
McMaster's campaign said GOP causes, such as preventing sanctuary cities, are important to voters in the state. The governor also has been hard at work on important issues, his spokesperson said.
“While it's no surprise political scientists and liberal activists are criticizing the governor's support for a handful of policies they personally don't like, the reality is the governor has been focused on a broad swath of issues including cutting taxes, protecting schools and bringing new good-paying jobs to our state," his campaign spokesperson Caroline Anderegg said.
Democrats pander, too
Pandering might pay off for the Republican candidates because there is little risk in a GOP candidate swinging too far to the right, experts say.
"It's been so long since a Democrat won" the governor's office that the candidate who wins the GOP nomination in June can tack to the far right now and "strike a more conciliatory, pro-business chamber of commerce tone in the general election," said College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts.
For Democrats, the calculus is different.
Democrat James Smith, a longtime legislator from Columbia and Afghanistan war combat veteran, can appeal to moderate conservatives in the pro-military Palmetto State. But swinging too far to the left to win the Democratic primary could erode independent and moderate support that Smith will need in the general election, Knotts said.
Smith has been rolling out endorsements from key Democratic voting blocks, including, the latest, the Sierra Club, a move Felkel said could be viewed as pandering to environmentalists.
But Smith's frequent mentioning of his service in the Afghanistan war is different, Felkel said. "The guy served his country meritoriously. It ain't bragging if you do it."
Smith is "running a pretty good, moderate Republican campaign," the GOP consultant said.
Attacking Smith for doing just that, Democrat Phil Noble of Charleston repeatedly cites the Columbia Democrat's positive grades from the National Rifle Association.
Tying Smith to the NRA is an attempt to move some Democratic voters away from their party's front-runner. But it might not be effective, said Winthrop University political scientist Karen Kedrowski.
"I'm not sure it's really going to resonate that well in South Carolina," she said, noting Democratic voters in the state are fairly conservative.
Also seeking the Democratic nomination is Florence anti-trust attorney Marguerite Willis, who has made appeals to Democratic women as the only woman running on her side of the ticket.
Republicans 'outdo each other'
Some Republican activists quietly grouse their candidates should spend more time talking about the state's challenges, such as its battered roads, troubled pension system and ongoing nuclear debacle — and less about the Confederacy, in Templeton's case, and nonexistent sanctuary cities, in McMaster's case.
The two front-runners, in fundraising at least, provide the standout examples of pandering, according to those GOP activists and other political observers.
In the hotly contested five-way GOP primary, the Republican candidates are trying to energize every GOP voter to come to the polls in June. Because turnout in primaries generally is low, the GOP's most engaged voters — conservative activists — will play a huge role in deciding their party's nominee.
That leaves the GOP candidates for governor trying to "outdo each other" to win over those voters by using language that will resonate with them, Winthrop's Kedrowski said.
For example, McMaster and Templeton both joined Trump's criticism before the Super Bowl of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police violence against blacks.
After McMaster issued an executive order encouraging Super Bowl viewers to stand for the flag and the anthem, Templeton one-upped McMaster, tweeting at President Trump that she "won't enrich the NFL by even watching the Super Bowl."
The two also have worked hard to appeal to voters who strongly support the Second Amendment.
McMaster said he would sign a bill allowing for the open carrying of firearms without permits or training, despite strong opposition from law enforcement.
After 17 teachers and students were slain in a school shooting in Parkland, Fla., McMaster said he would sign a bill arming teachers if it hit his desk. He later walked back his support for that proposal, saying it needed more study. (That move also came as the state's top law enforcement officials said they oppose the idea of arming teachers.)
Templeton, who also says she would support arming teachers backed by armed law enforcement on campus, frequently talks about the gun in her purse on the campaign trail.
She said state law enforcement told her to get a permit and to start carrying a gun because she "ruffled so many feathers" while cutting bureaucrats as a state agency chief under then-Gov. Nikki Haley. SLED recently disputed that story.
'Year of the Panda'?
Spotting pandering is easy, experts say.
Andy Brack, who edits the Statehouse Report newsletter, offered a "rule of thumb" to political observers in a recent column, declaring 2018 the "Year of the Panda." Brack wrote, "If a candidate seems particularly strident about something, look closely to see if they’re serious or if they’re trying to use an issue just to get an emotional reaction — and your vote."
"It's hyperbolic and emotional, and it's usually an over-the-top promise or statement," GOP consultant Felkel said. "It's a white lie. You might really feel that way ... but you know in your head and your heart that you're never going to get to that point, but you say it anyway."
The former editor of The State newspaper's editorial page, Brad Warthen, joined critics of McMaster's immigration proposal with a comment on Twitter.
"A reminder, once again, to anyone living in a reality-based universe: There are NO sanctuary cities in SC. Henry's like a guy standing on the corner of Assembly & Gervais, snapping his fingers and claiming it's keeping the elephants away. ..."
Riding the coattails of Trump, whom McMaster endorsed before the state's 2016 presidential primary and who, in turn, endorsed McMaster last year, the governor quickly echoed Trump in calling for work requirements for able-bodied Medicaid recipients.
"Symbolically it sounds great, but it's a moot point," said Kedrowski, noting only a small fraction of Medicaid recipients are able-bodied adults, and many of those either are pregnant women or poor parents already subject to work requirements because they are on welfare.
Templeton's biggest pander is to enthusiasts of the Confederacy, observers say.
"Catherine Templeton is wrapping herself in the Confederate flag," Kedrowski said, adding the Mount Pleasant attorney likely has polling to indicate it's a good strategy.
Templeton also has a greater need to generate headlines than does McMaster, who as governor has an easier time reaching GOP primary voters, Felkel said.
"Unfortunately, I think she's leading the pack" in pandering, Felkel said, noting Templeton's comments about the Confederacy followed a racially motivated church shooting that led the state to remove the Confederate flag from the State House grounds.
"Maybe, that's because she's not in office," Felkel said. "She feels like she needs to be over the top to get attention. McMaster has the luxury of the bully pulpit."
While most Republicans "are tired of fighting" about the flag, "Templeton is banking on Johnny Reb being out there in the woods somewhere" and deciding to vote for her, said the Greenville consultant.
Templeton's Confederate appeals could be meant as "a way to show that political correctness has gone too far," said College of Charleston political scientist Knotts.
But they also could backfire.
"It's a backwards-looking way to go," said Knotts, and not a good way to win support from African-Americans or from more moderate Republicans who have moved to South Carolina from other states, if Templeton makes it through the GOP primary.
"Take a place like Mount Pleasant, where she lives with people from New York and Ohio and all kinds of places. A connection to the Confederacy isn't the best way to win an election in 2018."