Overcoming a 14-point margin in only two weeks to beat an incumbent is a steep climb, political observers say. But it's not insurmountable.
That's the challenge facing political novice John Warren, the Greenville mortgage lender who Tuesday forced Republican Gov. Henry McMaster into a June 26 runoff for the GOP nomination for governor.
In Tuesday's GOP primary, McMaster won more than 155,000 votes — or more than 42 percent — to Warren's 102,000, or 27.8 percent, according to unofficial results.
The question is whether Warren, who entered the five-way GOP primary race in February, can continue his momentum and expand his support beyond the Upstate by winning over the backers of his three other, one-time — now former — GOP competitors.
"Warren has the privilege of presenting himself as someone who is new, fresh and improved," said Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor and GOP consultant. "Here’s the problem McMaster has: He can’t reinvent himself," given his long tenure in S.C. politics.
McMaster is replaying his greatest hits from the race in his latest TV ad. His campaign Wednesday announced a new statewide, six-figure ad buy that touts the governor's endorsement by President Donald Trump and job growth. The ad also highlights McMaster's pro-life, pro-gun and pro-immigration enforcement positions.
"Last night's results proved that the people of South Carolina are excited about and rallying around Team South Carolina's winning coach: Governor Henry McMaster," campaign spokeswoman Caroline Anderegg said in a statement. "Our campaign's momentum continues to build every day, and we look forward to talking to even more voters and bringing home a victory in two weeks."
But Tuesday’s outcome also showed the majority of S.C. GOP voters have reservations about McMaster after a campaign full of assaults on his leadership skills and ties to a former, longtime political consultant indicted in the ongoing State House corruption probe.
Warren spent $3 million of his own money to pitch himself as a fresh face who would change the way that business is done at the State House. He surged late in the primary campaign with TV spots promoting himself as a self-made businessman and Marine Corps veteran who did not owe anyone favors and would bring business skills and savvy to government's problems.
Warren appeared Wednesday on the Fox Business channel arguing his resume reads more like Trump's than McMaster's does. The governor, he said, has been part of Columbia's problems for 30 years, adding, "It's time to change the coach."
But while that anti-establishment refrain resonated with a segment of GOP voters and generated buzz in the Upstate, Warren came in third, behind Catherine Templeton, in other Republican strongholds across South Carolina, including York, Aiken, Horry and Beaufort counties.
"He finished strong in the Upstate ... the question is: Will it be enough and can he cut the margins" in the counties that McMaster won Tuesday, said Greenville political consultant Chip Felkel. "He was not (primary voters) first choice. McMaster was first and, in many places, Templeton was the second choice."
Warren, Felkel said, needs to convince Templeton’s supporters to switch their allegiance to him after a sometimes-nasty race between Warren and Templeton for second place in Tuesday's primary and a slot in the June 26 runoff.
Warren has to convince Templeton supporters that, "If you want an outsider, I’m the last one standing,'' Felkel said.
Templeton campaign manager R.J. May III said Wednesday he had not yet spoken to Templeton about whether she plans to make an endorsement in the runoff. During the primary campaign, the two-time state agency director under then-Gov. Nikki Haley had — like Warren — branded herself as a political outsider, contrasting that status to McMaster's establishment, insider candidacy.
A campaign spokesperson for Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, who also dogged McMaster over his ethics and leadership, did not return messages Wednesday seeking comment.
State Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, who endorsed Templeton, had not decided Wednesday if he will endorse in his party's runoff.
One thing the two GOP candidates will need is more money to pay for their runoff race.
Warren — who largely self-financed his campaign, contributing more than $3 million — could put more of his own money into the runoff. How much remains a mystery. His campaign did not respond to a question Wednesday about how much Warren plans to pump into the runoff.
"John is incredibly encouraged by the outpouring of support he has received ... and looks forward to drawing a clear contrast with Henry McMaster's record of failed leadership," campaign spokeswoman Laura Beth Kirsop said in a statement.
McMaster and Warren will meet for a debate next Wednesday at the Newberry Opera House. The 7 p.m. debate is being sponsored by SC ETV, the Post and Courier and S.C. Public Radio.