One shot already has been fired across Gov. Henry McMaster’s bow, warning his ties to a political firm ensnared in a state public corruption probe could hurt his bid to keep his job.
The question is how many more shots will be fired and what impact those political broadsides will have on the 2018 governor’s race.
Making it official that she is running for governor, Republican Catherine Templeton said Tuesday South Carolinians “need politicians spending less time on scandals and more time doing math.”
The “scandal” is prosecutor David Pascoe’s ongoing State House public corruption investigation, which has led to the indictment of three GOP lawmakers. The most recent was state Sen. John Courson of Richland, accused of pocketing campaign cash allegedly laundered through Columbia-based Richard Quinn & Associates.
After Courson’s indictment, McMaster said he stood by RQA and its chief, veteran GOP political consultant Richard Quinn, who also is McMaster’s longtime political adviser.
McMaster has some advantages as he seeks s four-year term in 2018.
Neither Quinn, nor anyone else at his firm, has been charged with any wrongdoing. Reached Wednesday, Quinn declined to comment.
McMaster also enjoys the benefits of being the incumbent, including the ability to raise large amounts of cash quickly. A boost from President Donald Trump, whom McMaster endorsed before the S.C. GOP primary, also could help the governor win support from the Republican activists who, typically, decide GOP primary contests.
However, the ongoing State House corruption investigation could stymie McMaster’s election hopes if his opponents decide to push the issue.
Former Republican Gov. David Beasley recently told The (Charleston) Post and Courier that McMaster should consider putting his business relationship with Quinn’s firm on hold.
Others already are. The S.C. Ports Authority board, for example, voted last week to suspend its consulting payments to RQA, after reports that state investigators are looking into that arrangement.
Some McMaster opponents clearly are hoping the corruption investigation blows up, damaging the Richland Republican.
“It's what Catherine Templeton is banking on,” said Greenville political consultant Chip Felkel.
“Get out early, show yourself as an alternative, and hope that a long-standing relationship with the Quinns somehow undercuts McMaster in a way that she sees an opening.”
‘Public is making judgments’
Templeton says she does not need to run a negative campaign, including talking about the corruption probe.
But Democrats, who do not have a candidate for governor yet, already are latching onto the scandal issue.
The Democratic Governors Association sent out an email Wednesday, citing Templeton’s announcement, to say McMaster is “mired in a major corruption scandal” and fighting divisions in the S.C. GOP.
The governor likely will continue to face questions about his allegiance to the Quinn firm, said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. But, he added, “If the election were today, I don't think the ethics scandal affects the governor's race.”
“The public is making judgments about the Quinns” and their associates, Massey said, adding McMaster’s loyalty to the firm invites more questions.
“As long as you continue to stand by them, you're going to have to defend why you're standing by them.”
Still weighing a bid for the GOP nomination is former S.C. commerce chief Joe Taylor, who said Wednesday he will decide by June whether he will run.
If Taylor enters the race, he will join McMaster, Templeton and long-time former state Sen. Yancey McGill of Williamsburg in seeking the GOP nomination.
Meanwhile, uncertainty about the corruption probe is driving buzz that other would-be contenders may join the race.
“Anyone who thinks they know where it all ends is lying,” S.C. GOP Chairman Matt Moore said of the State House investigation, adding the probe likely will drive rumors about potential candidates “well into next year.”
However, Barry Wynn, an Upstate GOP financial backer, thinks the GOP field is likely set, or close to it.
Trump’s presidential win – and his decision to name then-S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations – has transformed what was expected to be a brutal 2018 battle for an open seat into McMaster’s seat to lose, Wynn says.
That sent many high-profile GOP politicians, who previously were weighing a run for governor, in other directions, Wynn added.
For example, state Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, pivoted to a run for Congress after McMaster became governor. Meanwhile, former U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, an Indian Land Republican who had an eye on the Governor’s Mansion, now is Trump’s budget director.
Other GOP names on the grapevine include:
▪ U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, who said this week he’s not running
▪ U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan of Laurens, who was thought to have an interest in running for governor before the presidential election
▪ U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, a former two-term governor, who would have an instant advantage if he decided to get his old job back. The Charleston Republican still has more than $1 million in his gubernatorial campaign account.
Questions of leadership
Others say leadership — not Pascoe’s corruption probe — will be the top issue and threat to McMaster in the GOP race.
This week, McMaster’s leadership was tested after he said the state should borrow money to repair the state’s crumbling roads, not to pay for deferred maintenance at colleges and universities and other state agencies.
That suggestion drew hits from leaders in the GOP-controlled Legislature, who favor raising the state’s gas tax as part of a roads solution, and the University of South Carolina, McMaster’s alma mater, which wants money for building maintenance.
Senate Majority Leader Massey, who wants an income tax cut to offset any gas tax increase, said he appreciates McMaster’s focus on making the state Transportation Department more accountable and efficient. But, the Republican added, the roads agency also needs more money.
“Continuing to run up the credit card to address daily maintenance issues is not a responsible plan,” Massey said.
Templeton also criticized McMaster’s proposal to borrow money for roads – saying that is “the last thing” she would do as governor.
However, asked whether she would push to increase the gas tax as part of a roads solution, Templeton did not answer directly.
First, the state needs to make sure existing dollars – from income taxes to the gas tax – are being spent wisely, she said, echoing gas-tax opponents.
But, Templeton added, “I wouldn’t take anything off the table if I’m trying to solve a problem.”