James Smith celebrates with supporters after winning SC Democratic primary for governor
State Rep. James Smith claimed the Democratic Party's nomination for governor in a landslide Tuesday as he and his party try to reclaim the S.C. Governor's Mansion for the first time in 20 years.
In a win for the Democratic Party's establishment, Smith — a Columbia attorney and Afghanistan combat veteran — easily won enough votes to hold off his two primary opponents — Charleston technology consultant Phil Noble and Florence anti-trust attorney Marguerite Willis — and avoid a runoff.
Smith beamed inside 701 Whaley on Tuesday, the same building where he kicked off his campaign.
"I ask that you take the energy in this room tonight to your homes, to your workplace and to all of our communities," Smith told the crowd. "I know as governor, our best days are ahead of us."
Party favorite got boost early
Smith was the presumed front-runner in the Democratic race.
The 22-year S.C. House member announced his candidacy in October — well before Willis, who finished second in the primary, and Noble, who finished third. That gave Smith a lead in raising money and organizing a statewide door-knocking grassroots effort.
Smith, 50, also was able to lock in early key endorsements from Democratic heavy hitters, including former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia, the state's senior member of Congress and the third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House.
Smith named S.C. House colleague Mandy Powers Norrell of Lancaster as his pick for lieutenant governor — a "real up-and-comer" in the S.C. Democratic Party, noted Winthrop University political scientist Karen Kedrowski. "She (Powers Norrell) ... can really speak to the working class roots of the Democratic Party."
Democrats hope Norrell can help Smith land moderate white voters in November, who may have voted for President Donald Trump in 2016.
"You're going to see Mandy and James Smith bring voters to the Democratic Party that might not normally vote for a Democratic candidate," said Trav Robertson, S.C. Democratic Party chairman.
Throughout his primary campaign, Smith ran as a progressive moderate, positioning himself for the November general election.
He was endorsed by conservation groups in the wake of a $9 billion nuclear debacle at the V.C. Summer plant in Fairfield County. He also is supported by pro-choice groups. But he accepted that support with an eye toward the general election. "I don't know anyone that is pro-abortion. It's a question of people's rights, fundamental rights," Smith told The State in May.
Smith's win illustrates Democrats' desire to win the November general election, said College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts. "It shows that Democrats are fairly united behind a person that has the best chance of winning.
"He was a person who won this invisible primary, but then translated it into an actual primary."
Swings and misses
Throughout the primary, Smith was not immune to swings from his opponents.
▪ Repeated hits from Noble, who tried to tie Smith to the National Rifle Association over Smith's past "high" grades from the gun lobby's Political Victory Fund. Smith — a combat veteran, who joined the military at age 37 after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and was awarded a Purple Heart after he was injured by an improvised explosive device — says he supports the Second Amendment but has called for "common sense" gun control legislation.
▪ An early campaign by the Republican Governor's Association to slam Smith for one of his business ventures — The Congaree Group. That company has received lucrative government contracts since 2010, mostly from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, to provide valet services for veterans who are treated at Veterans Administration hospitals. Smith's status as a service-disabled veteran allowed him access to those federal contracts, reserved specifically for veteran-owned small businesses.
▪ Jabs in the Democrats' last debate from Willis, who criticized Smith for having close relationships with former Republican lawmakers entangled in a State House corruption probe.
▪ Criticism from Noble and Willis that Smith's two-decade-long tenure in the S.C. House did not produce any substantial legislation. Smith had countered that Democrats have little power in the GOP-controlled General Assembly.
Noble told reporters Tuesday that, while disappointed by his loss, he will endorse Smith. "Any Democrat is better than a Republican," he said.
Willis did not respond to attempts for comment by press time.
Despite the hits, Smith was able to convince Democratic voters they should nominate a candidate who can work with both parties, Knotts said.
"He reminds me a lot of some of the Southern governors from the '70s or '80s — like (the late Gov.) Zell Miller in Georgia or (former Gov.) Jim Hunt in North Carolina — moderates who worked to build consensus, are pro-business and also pro-education.
"It's a different approach."
Winning a November election in red state South Carolina will be a tough uphill climb for Smith.
South Carolina has not put a Democrat in the Governor's Mansion since 2002.
The party's last attempt, in 2014, saw state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden lose by 14 points to then-Gov. Nikki Haley.
"It's a really big hill" for Democrats to climb, Knotts said. "But it's not impossible."
With his primary win behind him — and roughly five months until the Nov. 6 general election — it is time for Smith to kick his campaign into high gear if he wants to compete in a red state, pundits say.
"He (Smith) can start to unite the party and start campaigning ... two extra weeks while the Republicans are still infighting," said Winthrop University's Kedrowski. "That's good for the (Democratic) party across the state."
Kedrowski said the summer months are going to be crucial for Smith to raise money and get his name out to voters — particularly moderate Republicans — outside of the State House bubble.
"After Labor Day is when people start to pay more attention," she said. "I wouldn't expect much downtime (for Smith), especially given the long odds of a Democrat being elected governor."
Looking at the McMaster-Warren runoff in two weeks, S.C. Democratic Chairman Robertson said the state's GOP is in disarray, giving Democrats a chance to win in November. "They can't coalesce behind one candidate."
Smith brushed aside any notion that a Democrat can't win the governor's race in November.
"They said we couldn’t win in Pennsylvania, Alabama and Virginia. ... I'm very confident in the ability to win in November."
SC Democratic governor's race
Democratic gubernatorial primary, 1,647 of 2,245 precincts reporting:
Phil Noble: 18,031
James Smith: 105,628
Marguerite Willis: 45,518