South Carolinians have elected lieutenant governors since the end of the Civil War, but that ends on Nov. 4.
Either Republican Henry McMaster or Democrat Bakari Sellers will be the last candidate elected to the state’s No. 2 office in a stand-alone race. Starting in 2018, the governor and lieutenant governor will run on the same ticket.
This piece of history – along with a pair of notable politicians – have made the last solo race for the part-time job stand out this year, political experts say.
The opponents, who debate on Monday night, also offer a contrast in S.C. politics.
McMaster, a 67-year-old Columbia attorney, is a Republican mainstay. He chaired the state party and was appointed U.S. attorney. He has run for statewide office five times previously, having been elected attorney general twice, but losing bids for the U.S. Senate, lieutenant governor and, in 2010, governor.
“There’s not a GOP voter in South Carolina who probably has not cast a ballot for Henry McMaster at some point,” said Chip Felkel of Greenville, a Republican strategist. “If you draw up what a white Southern politician is like, he is what you have in mind. He’s conservative, for limited government and limited spending. He’s been entrenched. He’s paid his dues.”
If McMaster is representative of the GOP’s past three decades, Sellers, a 30-year-old Denmark lawyer, could represent the S.C. Democratic Party’s future.
Sellers is finishing his fourth two-year term in the S.C. House. Democratic presidential hopefuls – Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2014 – have sought Sellers’ support.
The son of an S.C. civil rights icon, the only person jailed after 1968’s Orangeburg Massacre, could attract more African-American voters to the polls for the mid-term election, when turnout drops from presidential years.
“Bakari has made this a more interesting race even if the odds of him winning aren’t great,” Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said. “He’s gotten this race on the radar more than previous lieutenant governor candidates.”
Senior voters a factor
On its face, the lieutenant governor’s post is not much.
The duties of the $46,545-a-year job includes presiding over the state Senate and overseeing the state Office on Aging, a $40 million agency with more than 40 employees.
Because of the role that office plays with South Carolina’s expanding graying population, senior voters could be a factor in the race to succeed interim Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill, a Kingstree Democrat who chose not to run.
“It should be recognized by people more,” Felkel said. “It has more effect on their lives than how the Senate works.”
Concerns about aging issues should bring out more voters for McMaster – especially since older voters are more likely to go to the polls.
“Seniors will be more conservative,” Huffmon said.
Both candidates share plans to give seniors expanded property tax breaks for their homes, a better chance to remain in their homes as they age, and protection from abuse and fraud.
Sellers also wants to develop a statewide senior transportation plan; work on getting tax breaks on long-term care insurance premiums and for caregivers; increase the budget for Medicaid-funded nursing home beds; and emphasize Alzheimer’s care and research.
McMaster’s plan includes eliminating state taxes on retirement and pension incomes; offering retirement-planning education; promoting physical fitness; mobilizing nonprofits and volunteers; and improving senior centers with the help of nonprofits.
Sellers said he wants to rely less on volunteers and outside groups, and use existing state resources to better aid seniors.
“Seniors are the fastest-growing population in the state,” he said, adding they also have the “fast-growing rate of poverty.”
McMaster said volunteers will help “because they’re free and can fill in a lot of gaps.”
The next governor?
Voters also could look at the race with an eye toward which of the two candidates would make the best governor.
If the 2016 GOP nominee wins the presidency, that candidate could consider Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, favored to win re-election next week, for anything from vice president to a cabinet post to an ambassadorship.
Felkel, the GOP strategist, does not think S.C. voters will be thinking that far ahead when voting for a lieutenant governor. But, he added, “It’s worth considering.”
McMaster has made no secret that he would work closely with Haley if both Republicans are elected next week.
McMaster endorsed Haley soon after she beat him in the 2010 GOP primary for governor. Subsequently, Haley appointed McMaster to the S.C. Ports Authority and to co-chair an ethics reform task force.
The governor made a cameo in a television ad that McMaster released last week with the words “Haley/McMaster,” strongly suggesting a combined ticket four years earlier than planned.
“People would like the lieutenant governor to work with the governor. We have never had that before,” McMaster said. “Our plan is to work together to get things done.”
Political observers say McMaster’s ties to Haley are a plus for the Republican. “It would have to help him,” Felkel said.
Both Republican candidates held comfortable leads in polls released by The (Charleston) Post & Courier and other media outlets this month.
Among the Democrats, Sellers has appeared at some events with the party’s nominee for governor, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, including a news conference where the pair called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House grounds.
But the pair have not talked about working together as a ticket like their Republican counterparts, and Sellers is not seeing the same benefit from his party’s gubernatorial nominee, Felkel said.
“Bakari’s race has suffered greatly from Sheheen’s campaign,” Felkel said. “He’s not been as strong a gubernatorial candidate as he was four years ago. Sheheen’s campaign barely has legs of its own, much less have legs to help other campaigns.”
If he and Haley win, Sellers said he could work with the Republican governor. “We’re both from Bamberg County, and we would have both beaten Henry.”
Sellers said he would be willing to tell the governor if Haley is wrong.
“You ask: Who would be the better governor? At least look at someone who has courage,” Sellers said. “It’s like he running to be chief of staff for Nikki Haley.”
Wants to unite
Sellers, who was the youngest House member when elected in 2006, has worked to win over younger voters, too.
He tweets out to alumni of Palmetto Boys and Girls State, a program where he has been a regular speaker in recent years.
Sellers said he wants to unite a state fractured by race and political affiliation.
“Given that the blood of my family literally runs through the soil of this state, I think I can help stop letting elected officials divide us,” he said.
Sellers said he has worked across the political aisle in the Republican-controlled House on issues including stiffening criminal-domestic violence laws and aiding struggling rural hospitals. He also has taken some contrarian stances for a Democrat, including opposing higher taxes to pay for road repairs.
“I have a record more toward the center,” said Sellers, who is not running for re-election to his House seat.
McMaster’s campaign is quick with reminders that Sellers also co-chaired Obama’s presidential campaign in the state.
"We've tried inexperience before – and we got Obamacare, ISIS and incompetence,” McMaster’s campaign manager said in reaction to a Sellers TV ad released last week.
Sellers said he and Obama both are “skinny guys with funny names,” but he has differences with the president.
For example, he said he is disappointed by the Democratic president’s lack of action to reduce student loans. Sellers said he still carries about $100,000 in debt from college and law school.
Sellers downplays the experience argument. He has served two more years in the House than Haley had when she was elected governor.
And, in a swipe at McMaster’s failed statewide races, he adds, “Running for office does not give you experience.”
While his surrogates mention Sellers’ Obama ties, McMaster won’t talk about his opponent and his positions. “Everybody ought to run their campaign as they see fit,” he said.
McMaster promises to take advantage of what he calls an “underutilized office.”
“It has the same jurisdiction as the governor,” he said, meaning the lieutenant governor can help in statewide issues including economic development and ethics reform.
McMaster cites his accomplishments working for the GOP, and as U.S. attorney and state attorney general, as “evidence of my ability to get the job done.”
That experience will help presiding over the state Senate, “a body with 46 powerful and influential people.”
McMaster also says he could “step into the governor’s office with no problem at all.”
McMaster talks about seeing “great possibilities” for South Carolina’s improving economy. The state needs to lower taxes and ensure regulations don’t impede business growth, he adds.
But Sellers says he sees an impediment in the Confederate flag on the State House grounds.
Sellers said his stance on the flag is not about race. “It’s about moving us into the 21st century.”
But Sellers interjected race into the election when he said McMaster should renounce his three-decade-long membership in an all-white Columbia country club.
McMaster responded he would not quit Forest Lake Club, saying the club does not have policies that prohibit African-Americans from becoming members. (Sellers’ boss, attorney Pete Strom, is a Forest Lake member.)
As for the Confederate flag, McMaster said he agreed with the 2000 compromise that moved it from the State House dome to a Confederate memorial. Now, he added, the state has greater priorities.
“Tax reform needs to be done. Education needs to be done,” he said. “If we don’t take advantage of the economic prosperity we have, then we’re not going to get a lot things done.
“You will never hear me apologize for South Carolina.”