▪ One in a series of articles on the candidates running to be South Carolina's next governor.
COLUMBIA, SC — James Smith is the golden boy of the South Carolina Democratic establishment.
His backers say he is progressive enough to win his party's June 12 primary for governor and has the crossover appeal necessary to beat a Republican, taking back an office that has eluded Democrats for more than a decade.
A Columbia attorney with 22 years in the S.C. House of Representatives, Smith is banking on having a broader appeal in this pro-military red state. He's an Afghanistan combat veteran who received a Purple Heart. He supports the Second Amendment, but also wants "common sense" gun control reform.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
He has the backing of the Democratic establishment, winning endorsements from former Vice President Joe Biden and key African-American S.C. lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn. And he's raised more money than his opponents.
Smith sees these factors as advantages that can propel him — not his opponents Charleston businessman Phil Noble and Florence attorney Marguerite Willis — into the governor's office.
"I am the candidate that can win in November," Smith said Thursday during a Democratic debate.
Yet, with less than a month until the primary, Smith's path to win his party's nomination has gotten rockier.
He's taken a lot of fire on the stump, forced to defend his record again and again from opponents who, for the most part, have ignored each other and focused on painting the longtime legislator as a part of the establishment and the problem.
And up until Thursday's debate at Clemson University, Smith largely had been unwilling to engage opponents publicly to fight back and defend his record.
"I don't worry about all that stuff, really," Smith told The State newspaper in an interview en route to Charleston this month. "I just stay focused on what we're trying to do. You can only control so much in a campaign. The stuff you can't, you pray about it, have others pray about it and stay focused."
Without more recent polls, it's hard to say which Democratic candidate is in first to win the S.C. primary, said Jordan Ragusa, a political scientist at the College of Charleston, but the candidates' efforts to reach voters provide a clue.
"I've seen a lot more Smith ads on TV than Noble or Willis. That can be a pretty good indicator of what happens in the primary," Ragusa said. "Smith is probably still the front-runner. ... My sense is he's still in the lead, but (the lead has) narrowed."
'I've been shot at for real'
Smith's opponents have taken a no-holds-barred approach.
Hoping to win over gun-control advocates, and playing on an emotional issue, Noble repeatedly attacks Smith for sometimes high legislative scorecard grades from the National Rifle Association Political Victory Fund.
The Charleston Democrat says the grades are evidence the gun lobby has endorsed Smith, a point Smith refutes, noting the gun group has made no endorsements in the Democratic race. In a racially charged comparison, Noble said Smith has waffled on gun control, going as far as to compare him to a "Klansman taking his sheet off and saying, 'Well, I've changed.'"
"Reality is, year after year, you stood with the NRA, supporting legislation that threatens the life of our children," Noble said at Thursday's debate.
"I want to ask why he voted to take guns into bars and restaurants," Noble said, referring to a law that allows permit holders to carry concealed firearms into places that serve alcohol.
Smith said he voted for the concealed carry bill after Democrats worked to improve it. He also defended his record, saying his ratings likely were due, in part, to past legislation he supported that affected gun ranges and hunting.
"He (Noble) wants to distract with things that really don't tell the whole story," Smith said in Charleston earlier this month after facing a similar attack.
Calling himself the state's next "education governor," Smith has received endorsements from education advocates, but he also has fielded questions from opponents about his legislative record and his children's education.
During Thursday's debate, Willis changed topics abruptly and asked Smith why he sent his children to private school. She also said that Smith failed to revamp the state's education system while in the House. The state is facing an increasing teacher shortage brought on, in part, by low pay.
Smith defended himself, saying Democrats face an uphill battle in the GOP-controlled Legislature. He touted his work on the state's early childhood education programs. Smith was a big proponent of the state's free 4-year-old kindergarten program.
On Friday, he shot back at Willis for bringing his children into the debate.
"Marguerite Willis has said that it is not the governor's job to improve our education system. She then attacked my children — as my daughter sat in the (debate) audience — based on personal parenting decisions," he said.
"That is not only shameful, it is hypocritical. My children are not running for office."
Until June 12, Smith says he will keep deflecting his opponents' shots.
"I've been shot at for real," Smith told reporters after a May 15 Charleston debate, referring to his time in combat. "I'm not concerned about a few shots from a debate stage."
A challenge for Democrats
Seen as appealing to moderate Republicans in a military-loving state, Smith contends he is the only Democratic candidate running for governor who can win in the general election.
Though Noble has called out Columbia's "corrupt culture," moderate Republican voters might be hard-pressed to elect such a progressive candidate for governor, who has swatted repeatedly at the National Rifle Association in a pro-Second Amendment state.
And Willis' targeting of President Donald Trump, accusing him of being a racist and sexist, might not go over well in a general election in a state the former New York real estate mogul won with 55 percent of the vote.
However, Smith's liberal positions also will be the target of Republican ire if he survives the primary.
For example, Planned Parenthood South Atlantic Votes is backing Smith — an endorsement heavily criticized by the anti-abortion GOP candidates for governor, including Gov. Henry McMaster.
Smith says he's prepared for that debate.
"I don't know anyone that is pro-abortion. It's a question of people's rights, fundamental rights," Smith told The State newspaper this month.
"So often, it's funny to hear my colleagues defend the Constitution when it comes to the Second Amendment but seem to forget all about it when it comes to the right to privacy," he added. "As someone who has sworn to protect and defend the Constitution of our state and our nation, I take the entire Constitution seriously and all the rights and protections that are there."
Smith does stand a chance to win in November, said the College of Charleston's Ragusa.
"You can never discount idiosyncrasies. Things can happen in any election," he said. "People thought Donald Trump had no chance of winning the presidency, and he did."
But for Smith to win a general election will be an "an uphill battle," Ragusa said.
'There's a lot of excitement'
Smith also has another challenge to overcome: a lack of name recognition.
Though considered the Democratic establishment favorite since his announcement last year, "very few people know him outside of downtown Columbia," said Rick Whisonant, a political scientist at York Technical College.
To get over that hump, this month Smith picked his House colleague Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell as the lieutenant governor candidate running with him.
The 44-year-old Lancaster Democrat helps balance the ticket as a woman. She also represents a district where she has a lot of African-American support and one that went for Trump in 2016.
Smith is the only Democratic candidate without an African-American running mate.
But support from Clyburn, South Carolina's senior congressman, and other African-American lawmakers could be enough to pull in votes from African-Americans, a core constituency of the Democratic Party.
His supporters say race has nothing to do with this election.
"He's concerned about the state, not just Democrats, Republicans, blacks or whites," said former Richland County councilwoman and community activist Bernice Scott.
"There's a lot of excitement for him."
The S.C. House representative and attorney is running for the Democratic nomination for governor on June 12.
Lives in: Columbia
Family: Married to Kirkland Smith; four children
Job: Attorney; president and chief executive officer of The Congaree Group LLC
Education: University of South Carolina
Money raised: $951,260