Gov. Henry McMaster came in for some criticism during his first face-to-face debate Wednesday with his GOP primary opponents but emerged largely unscathed.
The debate on SC ETV was the first to include McMaster alongside his four challengers for the Republican nomination for governor.
McMaster, who is running for his first full term after succeeding then-Gov. Nikki Haley in 2017, will have to win a June 12 primary against Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant of Anderson, former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill of Williamsburg, former state agency director Catherine Templeton of Mount Pleasant and Greenville businessman John Warren.
Polls suggest McMaster has a sizable lead three weeks before the primary but could fail to get the 50 percent plus one of the June 12 primary vote needed for an outright win, forcing him into a June 26 runoff. Wednesday's debate was one of only two chances the other GOP candidates have to reel McMaster in directly.
The candidates clashed most directly on the issue of abortion, which all oppose.
However, Bryant said McMaster's opposition does not go far enough.
McMaster has issued an executive order that would block any state money from being sent to organizations that provide abortion services. But Bryant said that order won't go into effect without clearance from the federal government, since the targeted payments go through Medicaid, a federally-funded program.
"My plan allows us to do that now. We don't have to wait on Washington, D.C.," said Bryant, who sponsored a bill to establish legal personhood for the unborn in the state Senate, a proposal that failed to pass.
McMaster pledged to veto any spending in the state budget that goes to pay for health care provided by Planned Parenthood, which provides abortion services. But he said federal approval is needed to enact completely his executive order.
Warren hit at both McMaster and Templeton over the abortion issue.
He went after McMaster for his support of Senate leader Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, whom he blamed for Planned Parenthood's funding, and Templeton for voting for state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, a "pro-choice Democrat," in the 2010 election for governor.
"It's not enough to say you're pro-life, you have to vote that way," Warren said.
Repeating a story she often tells, Templeton noted she personally chose not to abort one of her twin children while pregnant and ill. Both children later were born healthy.
McMaster said the state's economy has boomed under the first 16 months of his leadership despite the criticism from some of those on the stage at Clemson University.
"They see the bad. I see the good," McMaster said. "You don't fire the coach and put in a rookie when your team is winning."
The Columbia Republican did take some flak from Templeton for taking campaign contributions from SCE&G before the collapse of the V.C. Summer nuclear plant project, for which ratepayers are still on the hook.
"They're still taking our money and throwing it into a hole in the ground," she said.
Warren struck McMaster for taking money from SCE&G and Templeton for taking contributions from executives of the state-owned Santee Cooper utility, SCE&G's junior partner in the V.C. Summer project.
Both Bryant and Warren said they wanted to remove Santee Cooper's board members over the loss of billions of ratepayer dollars on the nuclear project.
McMaster noted he removed the head of the Santee Cooper board but warned a wholesale removal of the utility's board could undermine his plans to sell the state agency.
"You want to ruin a whole entity, you fire the whole board," he said. "The credit rating would go to zero."
McMaster said he too wanted ratepayers repaid for the money they have spent on the failed Fairfield County project, again pledging to veto any legislation that would not eliminate extra charges that power customers now pay to cover the project's cost.
All the candidates agreed they wanted to see more state agencies put under the control of the governor, and they want to cut or eliminate state taxes, saying the state has enough revenue but spends poorly.
Warren, who runs a financial firm, also criticized the state's penchant for doling out tax subsidies to attract out-of-state businesses, like Michelin and Boeing.
"We need to help companies that are started here, like mine," he said.