Politics & Government

President Trump's visit returned favor for Gov. McMaster's endorsement

Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks with South Carolina Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster after McMaster introduced him to a large crowd at the T. Ed Garrison Livestock Arena.
Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks with South Carolina Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster after McMaster introduced him to a large crowd at the T. Ed Garrison Livestock Arena. Greenville News/File

Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster marveled at the crowd as he prepared to take the stage at a S.C. rally for Donald Trump in January 2016.

Hundreds of people were jammed into a barn at Harmon's Tree Farm in Gilbert. Outside, thousands more watched the event on a TV in a large tent.

Saying he had "never seen anything like it," McMaster compared the rally to a Beatles concert, according to James Epley, who helped organize the event for Trump's presidential campaign.

Moments later, McMaster became the first statewide elected official in the nation to endorse Trump's candidacy.

Monday, McMaster — now governor of South Carolina — was hoping to capture some of the magic that propelled Trump into the White House, welcoming the president to a political fundraiser in Greenville.

Monday's fundraiser is the latest evidence that McMaster's endorsement of Trump was a shrewd move.

Trump easily won South Carolina's GOP primary in February 2016. He went on to claim his party's nomination before defeating Democrat Hillary Clinton in the general election.

In January, McMaster, 70, replaced former Gov. Nikki Haley after Trump selected her to become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. McMaster is seeking a full four-year term as governor in 2018.

Although some Republicans occasionally have criticized Trump since he took office, McMaster has remained steadfastly in his corner.

Speaking at an August fundraiser for U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan in Anderson, McMaster blasted the media for what he sees as its overly negative coverage of Trump. "I can guarantee the liberal press that they cannot stop Donald Trump no matter what they do."

Trav Robertson, chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party, said voters should remember that McMaster refused to stand up to Trump when he complained in May about the U.S. trade deficit with Germany. German-based BMW is the Upstate's top employer.

"This is a man who attacked a pillar of our community," Robertson said.

The latest Gallup daily national tracking poll says only 37 percent of respondents approve of the job that Trump is doing as president. In April, a Winthrop Poll found that 43 percent of S.C. respondents approved of Trump's job performance.

But Greenville County Republican Party chairman Nate Leupp said Trump remains popular in the Upstate. "His die-hard supporters probably like him more now."

Financial boost

Monday's fundraiser was expected to provide an infusion of cash for McMaster's gubernatorial campaign.

Tickets to the sold for $250 each. There also was a VIP reception for corporate donors and individuals who are making large contributions to McMaster.

Governor Henry McMaster speaks at the Upstate Republican Women Club BBQ in Greenville on Wednesday, September 20, 2017. Lauren Petracca Greenville News

McMaster's campaign could certainly benefit from a windfall.

According to reports filed this month, McMaster has raised nearly $2.3 million and has nearly $1.9 million in cash on hand, only about $34,000 more than Republican challenger Catherine Templeton has in her campaign account. Templeton, an attorney from Charleston who ran two state agencies while Haley was governor, is making her first run for elected office.

The competition for campaign contributions will be a key factor in the governor's race, said David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University.

Given that he is the incumbent, McMaster "is not as far ahead as he should be" at this point, Woodard said. "I don't sense that there is any momentum."

Danielle Vinson, a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University, said it was unclear how much Trump's support will help McMaster politically in the June Republican primary and November general election.

"Certainly Trump has a strong following in South Carolina, stronger than other parts of the country," she said.

If McMaster was an "unknown" candidate, Vinson said, Trump's backing "would be great for him."

But Vinson said McMaster is one of the state's most familiar political figures, a former U.S. attorney, chairman of the S.C. Republican Party, state attorney general and lieutenant governor.

"People know what they are getting from him," she said.

Smaller venue

Trump tends to hold rallies in arenas where he can feed off the audience's energy.

But only between 800 and 1,200 people were expected to attend Monday night's fundraiser at the Embassy Suites in Greenville.

Governor Henry McMaster shakes hands with a member of the Upstate Republican Women Club in Greenville on Wednesday, September 20, 2017. Lauren Petracca Greenville News

Vinson said she was surprised at the choice of the venue for Trump's visit. "The environment doesn't lend itself to that raucous crowd that (Trump) seems to enjoy," she said.

Two of McMaster's Republican challengers, Templeton and Bryant, said they fully expected Trump would come to South Carolina to endorse McMaster.

"I have tremendous respect for President Trump, and am not at all surprised that he is helping someone who endorsed him so early in the primary — I'd probably do the same thing," Templeton said in a statement.

"As the only political outsider in this race, I will break china in Columbia the way President Trump has drained the swamp in Washington," she said.

Bryant said Trump's visit "is going to help the governor with a lot of funds and a lot of publicity."

Bryant knows that he will have to do well in the conservative-leaning Upstate in the June Republican primary. He is scheduled to give a speech at Bob Jones University in Greenville on Oct. 23.

McMaster also has been a frequent visitor to the region. Monday's fundraiser will mark the eighth time that he has come to the Upstate in the past seven weeks.

"He is hunting for ducks where the ducks are," said Woodard, explaining Greenville County is expected to have the highest number of voters in the June GOP primary.

Vinson said that Templeton's effort to portray herself as a political outsider could pose the most serious threat to McMaster in next year's primary.

She said many voters may view McMaster as an establishment politician who is "entrenched in the Republican Party."

"He is an older candidate, a more traditional kind of candidate," Vinson said.