On Tuesday, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster will make the mandatory pilgrimage for Republicans to Bob Jones University, South Carolina’s Upstate anchor of Christian conservatism. On Wednesday, he’ll host a conference in Columbia on how to curb the growing opioid crisis.
In between, the Richland Republican will try to sell a state-owned power company in an attempt to rescue S.C. electric customers from a disastrous nuclear project that could saddle them with higher electric bills for decades.
Why the frantic activity?
Because the 2018 campaign season officially starts after Labor Day, when parades and politicking go hand in hand.
Three Republicans – maybe more by week’s end – are teeing up efforts to knock McMaster out of the Governor’s Mansion.
Charleston attorney Catherine Templeton, Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant of Anderson and former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill of Williamsburg have declared they are running for the GOP nomination in next June’s primary.
State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, says he will decide in the week after Labor Day whether there is space for him, too, in the GOP race, where he would run as a libertarian and play to the party’s anti-tax, limited-government activist wing.
Democrats have not fielded a candidate yet, but state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, is considered the minority party’s best hope.
The stakes are high for McMaster, who was not elected governor. Elected lieutenant governor in 2014, McMaster took over when Gov. Nikki Haley resigned to become President Donald Trump’s U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
So what do candidates need to accomplish – and avoid – to win?
What he must do to win the GOP nomination:
▪ “Manage the chaos,” said former S.C. GOP Chairman Katon Dawson, noting McMaster has an opportunity as governor to show he’s a leader. By bringing the state’s most immediate problem – the decision by SCANA and Santee Cooper to bail on building two multibillion-dollar nuclear reactors – to some positive resolution, McMaster can parlay the deal gone wrong into a political win.
“People look for a governor they can trust and can like because, when the natural disaster happens or when chaos breaks loose, that is what the general public and the voters are looking for,” Dawson said.
▪ Firm up support with the GOP’s base while also finding “a way to reconnect and rejuvenate relationships with the business community that disagreed with him on the gas tax,” said Greenville political consultant Chip Felkel.
Speaking at Bob Jones, McMaster likely will mention his recent pledge to block state money from abortion providers, an appeal to Christian conservatives who dominate GOP politics in the Upstate, where a lot of Republican primary voters are.
But McMaster departed from the pro-GOP business community’s agenda when he vetoed the gas tax hike passed by the Legislature last spring to repair the state’s crumbling roads. Of course, McMaster’s veto threatened nothing. Legislators easily overturned it, meaning roads will be repaired, and McMaster won points with the anti-tax GOP activists who drive Republican primaries.
▪ Milk incumbency. McMaster already has been given the greatest gift of all in politics. For an incumbent governor, the headlines roll in and the microphone stays on, giving him frequent and cost-free opportunities to define himself before his opponents do. As governor, McMaster also will find it easier to raise cash for his campaign.
▪ Capitalize on Trump. Capturing any enthusiasm for President Donald Trump among South Carolina’s Republican primary voters will be key for any GOP contender. But it could be easiest for McMaster, who was the first statewide elected official in the nation to endorse Trump. As long as the president’s approval rating is high in South Carolina, McMaster will “ride that elephant as long as he can,” Felkel said.
Trump also could visit South Carolina, raising money and enthusiasm for the low-key McMaster.
What he must avoid:
▪ Steer clear of being tied to the so-called corrupt establishment.
McMaster already has distanced himself from his longtime political strategist and consultant, Richard Quinn & Associates, under investigation in a statewide public corruption probe. Instead of Quinn, McMaster has hired one of former Gov. Haley’s political strategists, Tim Pearson, as the political consultant for his 2018 campaign. The question is: Can McMaster hold his distance from the Quinndom in the public’s eye. (The firm’s principal, Richard Quinn, has not been charged, but his son, suspended state Rep. Rick Quinn, faces two misconduct in office charges.)
McMaster also received more than $115,000 in donations from SCANA and its employees in the month before the Cayce-based utility pulled the plug on its V.C. Summer Nuclear Station expansion project – a connection his opponents likely will not forget, given SCANA’s longtime relationship with the Quinn firm.
Because of her success in raising campaign cash thus far, the Charleston attorney – a former Haley cabinet member – has assumed the mantle as McMaster’s top opponent.
What she must do to win the GOP nomination:
▪ “Portray herself as an outsider who is going to crusade against the good ol’ boy network,” said Citadel political scientist Scott Buchanan.
The ongoing State House corruption probe and the V.C. Summer debacle give Templeton a bully pulpit to preach that something is wrong at the State House when lawmakers are accused of making millions by selling influence, and when they pass legislation that leaves consumers with all the risk for billion-dollar projects undertaken by favored businesses.
▪ Build support among the grassroots activists in the GOP’s base and develop a statewide profile.
While McMaster is a lifelong politician – a card-carrying member of the S.C. GOP establishment since the ’80s – Templeton is less known. However, as President Trump’s win last year demonstrated, being the outsider can help if voters are angry.
▪ Hope for more trouble. “If there continues to be more of a controversy, more indictments coming out of the State House probe, that plays well for Templeton because she can continue to make the argument, ‘We’ve got to clean up government,’ ” Buchanan said.
What Templeton must avoid:
▪ Don’t be tied to cronyism and the establishment herself.
Templeton, who ran two state agencies under Haley, has caught heat for her handling of a tuberculosis outbreak in a Greenwood County school. Parents were furious they were not notified sooner that a school janitor had the disease. When tested for the potentially lethal airborne illness, 53 students had been infected.
“I fully expect them to attack her on her handling of the TB outbreak,” said Felkel, adding Templeton’s opponents will be looking for other missteps to highlight.
Templeton also took two lucrative consulting contracts with the state – with DHEC the day after she stepped down as director of that state agency and, later, with the state Department of Revenue. Those agencies paid Templeton $124,000 but have no written records of her work product beyond contracts and invoices requesting payment.
Bryant was a state senator from Anderson – hardly a statewide political base – until McMaster was elevated to governor. Then, state senators elected him lieutenant governor.
What must do he do to win the GOP nomination?
▪ Fire up supporters. Bryant and other underdogs face the same challenge, Felkel said. “They’ve got to capture lightning in a bottle on some issue that resonates with people, and they’ve got to have a solution.”
▪ Raise more money. Since becoming lieutenant governor, Bryant has spent his time traveling the state and raising his profile. He has been less successful raising money. Thus far, his campaign largely has been self-funded.
▪ Carve out territory. Bryant has support and name recognition in the Upstate. “(But) can he out-conservative McMaster and show that he’s got support in the Upstate and along the coast?” Felkel said.
Bryant was one of the most conservative state senators, a member of the libertarian and tea party-aligned William Wallace Caucus. Those ideologies appeal to many die-hard GOP primary voters. But Bryant could be undercut if state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, a fellow William Wallace Caucus member, also enters the race.
What Bryant must avoid:
The suspicion that he is running for governor only to win the lieutenant governor’s slot on the GOP ticket. In 2018, for the first time, candidates for governor will name their lieutenant governor running mates, just as presidential candidates select their running mates. Bryant’s right-wing credentials and his Upstate base could “balance” a GOP ticket for McMaster or Templeton.
The longtime Democrat and, only recently, Republican served briefly as lieutenant governor after Glenn McConnell resigned to become president of the College of Charleston.
As the darkest of dark horses, what must McGill do to win the GOP nomination?
▪ Start campaigning – again. McGill was the first candidate to start raising money for the 2018 race. But he says he’s spent nearly all of it on visiting each of South Carolina’s 46 counties. McGill told The State newspaper his goal was to tour the state collecting voters. Now, he’s planning fundraisers in the fall.
▪ Become popular outside of the Pee Dee. As a longtime state senator, McGill has a lot of support in his neck of the woods. But running statewide requires a different network of supporters. The climb will be steep. If McGill stands a chance of competing with candidates who have far more cash than he does, he needs to target voters statewide aggressively.
What he must avoid:
▪ Being called a Democrat. McGill switched to the GOP after he left office as interim lieutenant governor. His reason for the switch? He’d always held conservative values, but he could not run as a Republican in his Democratic Williamsburg County district, he said at the time. Still, spending his entire legislative career as a Democrat will work against him.
The longtime Richland County state representative is widely considered the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee.
What must he do to win the Democratic nomination?
▪ Announce he’s running – first, foremost and probably last. Once Smith announces a run, it’s unlikely any other serious Democratic contender will challenge him.
▪ Start raising money. Smith will need at least $5 million to pose a threat to the eventual GOP nominee, political observers say. The dogfight about to ensue on the GOP side will drain Republican candidates of some of their cash. That should ease Smith’s late start – if he jumps into the race.
▪ Use the next few months to set the stage for the general election. While the Republicans fight, Smith must start convincing the majority of S.C. voters that it’s OK to vote for a Democrat. A Democrat has not been elected S.C. governor since 1998, and Republicans have completely controlled the State House for more than 15 years. Are the scandals (the Appalachian Trail, Ken Ard, Bobby Harrell, Jim Merrill) and failures (collapsing dams overseen by DHEC, dying children overseen by Social Services, spiraling college tuition, underfunded schools, V.C. Summer) of one-party rule enough to persuade South Carolinians to let a Democrat take a turn leading?
What he must avoid:
▪ Losing simply because of the “D” after his name on the ballot. Smith would be the favorite to win the Democratic nomination if he got in. The Afghanistan war veteran, a well-known Columbia lawyer, could capture moderate Republicans, looking for an alternative to their party’s candidates. For Smith, the greatest impediment to winning the governor’s office is being, well, a Democrat. And there’s no way for Smith to avoid that.
Who wants to be SC governor?
A look at how much money candidates for S.C. governor had raised through June – and how much they had left to spend at the end of June, when they last reported fundraising totals. (Only Republicans have announced bids.)
Raised: $1.8 million
Cash on hand: $1.5 million
Raised: $1.5 million
Cash on hand: $1.3 million
Cash on hand: $294,600
Cash on hand: $12,200