Gov. Henry McMaster is under fire for skipping a handful of debates before next month's Republican primary.
But while the slow-talking GOP primary favorite is being dubbed "Hiding Henry" by his challengers, experts say the Richland Republican just might be cagily playing the political hand he has been dealt.
The 71-year-old holds at least a 20-point lead over his four June 12 primary opponents. But, in the most recent polls, McMaster has lost his projected primary majority, rendering him vulnerable to being forced into a runoff, where his opponents can gather behind one challenger.
"The oldest rule in politics is that if you’re ahead, you never debate your opponent," said Clemson University political scientist David Woodard, a sometimes GOP consultant. "All you can do is lose.”
Skipping the debates
Frustration over McMaster's no-shows came to a head Monday night, when the Greenville tea party debate featured a cardboard cut-out of the Columbia Republican's face at an empty chair in the center of the stage.
McMaster also missed the Jan. 22 Tea Party Coalition Convention in Myrtle Beach and the May 10 Rally at the River in Horry County. (However, his running mate, Pamela Evette, did go to that event while McMaster attended previously scheduled campaign events.)
McMaster also will skip the first televised GOP debate of the season Wednesday at the College of Charleston and likely won't attend the May 29 GOP debate at Furman University in Greenville.
McMaster's absences evoke harsh criticism from his Republican challengers, who say the governor is ducking debates to avoid questions about his two years in office.
Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, said Tuesday, "absence is the hallmark of the McMaster administration."
"He was absent for the gas-tax filibuster, and his veto was just a wink and nod to a same-day override," the Anderson Republican said. "When (Democratic candidate for governor) James Smith and Planned Parenthood flooded the Senate to defeat the strongest pro-life bill in a generation, the governor was asleep.
"The godfather (Richard Quinn, McMaster's former political consultant who was indicted in the ongoing State House corruption probe) has told the governor to keep his mouth shut, and so he has, including when asked to talk to the voters."
McMaster will attend only the two S.C. GOP-sanctioned debates, one at Clemson University on May 24 and the other at the University of South Carolina on June 5, his campaign told The State.
But, his campaign said, McMaster hasn't been hiding. Instead, he has spoken to voters at 30 candidate forums, stump meetings, GOP meetings, banquets and other gatherings in the past six weeks.
"The governor looks forward to participating in the two statewide debates sanctioned by the state party," said McMaster campaign spokeswoman Caroline Anderegg. "We determined that the clearest, most consistent way to approach the process was to accept invitations to the only two debates sanctioned by the party."
Experts say avoiding debates — which serve as equalizers between incumbents and their challengers — might benefit McMaster in a race he leads by double digits.
McMaster doesn't want to step onto the same debate stage as four challengers in an environment where they appear his political equal and have a chance to land a critical blow, Clemson's Woodard said.
"Henry just doesn't want to make a mistake," Woodard said. "If he doesn't do anything wrong, he's done everything right."
Incumbents often dodge debates.
In 2012, the Salt Lake Tribune's editorial board noted U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, had agreed to just one joint appearance with a Republican primary challenger — and only on radio. But Hatch had pushed for eight primary debates in 1976, when he was challenging for the same Senate seat.
Woodard said McMaster — who has been lieutenant governor, attorney general and the S.C. Republican Party's chairman — is wise to avoid events hosted by Tea Party organizations that love to snipe at establishment candidates.
"It's lose-lose territory if you're an establishment, middle-of-the-road kind of guy," Woodard said. "Henry has been running for office since 1986, and he knows where the briar patches are."
Skipping the debates also gives McMaster more time to focus on events that showcase his strengths: speaking to voters one-on-one and interacting with large crowds, said Danielle Vinson, a Furman University political science professor.
But letting the debate absences pile up could carry consequences as McMaster's opponents label the governor a coward, Vinson said. The skipped debates also could leave McMaster rusty if one of his opponents forces him into a two-week-long runoff, she said.
"I understand why he's doing it, but it's a risky move," Vinson said.
McMaster's opponents have jumped at the chance to ding McMaster for absenteeism.
"He can hide from debates, but he can’t hide from his record of crony politics and failed leadership," said Greenville businessman John Warren, who entered the race in February.
Catherine Templeton, the Mount Pleasant labor attorney thought to be McMaster's leading challenger, has coined the "Hiding Henry" phrase.
Her campaign manager, R.J. May, said McMaster's debate absences are part of a "larger pattern of failed leadership" and an attempt to avoid "facing tough questions" from Templeton.
"He's failed to protect our citizens by allowing criminals to run wild in state prisons," May said in a statement. "And he's failed by refusing to stop the good ol' boy corruption that's rampant in Columbia."
McMaster spokeswoman Anderegg said those criticisms don't carry water.
Since becoming governor in January 2017 — after then-Gov. Nikki Haley resigned to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — McMaster has announced 18,000 new jobs, banned state money going to Planned Parenthood, pushed for legislation to bar sanctuary cities and pushed legislators to strip SCE&G of its monthly income from the failed V.C. Summer project, Anderegg said.
"While his opponents lob misleading and unsubstantiated attacks, Gov. McMaster is the only candidate with the experienced leadership and innovative vision to make South Carolina the safest, most promising place to live, work and raise a family," she said.