What we know about Gov. Henry McMaster
▪ One in a series of profiles on the candidates running to be South Carolina’s next governor, originally published June 1, 2018.
COLUMBIA, SC — Gov. Henry McMaster took hold of the microphone and filled 701 Whaley’s grand hall with echoes of his trademark optimism and slow, Southern drawl.
“We have an enormous opportunity for a new kind of prosperity,” the Richland Republican told the crowded room at the Columbia fundraiser, repeating a line that he hopes will define his first full term as governor.
McMaster, 71, says he has a grand vision for South Carolina, which he sees as fertile ground for an economic explosion. He speaks of the state as “a paradise,” highlighting its flourishing manufacturing sector and the availability of tens of thousands of high-skill jobs, papering over the state’s rock-bottom rankings in education, health care and poverty.
But to execute that vision, McMaster, who assumed the governor’s office in January 2017 when Nikki Haley left to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, first must stave off four primary challengers to win the Republican nomination for the job on June 12.
That is far from certain.
The most recent polling numbers show McMaster, the front-runner, is unlikely to win the 50-percent-plus-one majority he needs to win the primary outright.
Falling short of that would force a runoff, a dangerous scenario in which McMaster’s critics could unify behind one challenger. The top two contenders for a runoff — Mount Pleasant labor attorney Catherine Templeton and Greenville businessman John Warren — are vying to be that unifier, labeling McMaster a weak leader who personifies the corrupt political establishment.
But McMaster — who previously was lieutenant governor, attorney general and S.C. GOP chairman — holds a number of advantages.
McMaster holds key endorsements that check all the important boxes for GOP primary voters: anti-abortion (S.C. Citizens for Life), pro-gun rights (the National Rifle Association) and Republican President Donald Trump.
“It’s a tremendous advantage for McMaster to be so closely aligned with the president, who, for a lot of the Republican base, is very popular,” said Chip Felkel, a GOP political consultant. “There’s no taking that away from Henry.”
It also helps that South Carolina’s economy is booming. McMaster has announced more than 20,000 new jobs and nearly $6 billion in new investment in the Palmetto State since taking office, and the state’s jobless rate is at its lowest point since the turn of the century.
“When you’re winning, you don’t fire an experienced coach and hire a rookie,” McMaster shouted at the Columbia fundraiser. “You give him four more years and keep on winning!”
‘He’s come to us with nothing’
Voters also love a scandal-free incumbent.
McMaster’s 14-month stint as governor has been free of major meltdowns, his supporters say.
But opponents are quick to highlight his relationship with his longtime, former political consultant, Richard Quinn, who was indicted in the State House corruption probe. The charges against Quinn later were dropped as part of a plea deal with Quinn’s son.
Nonetheless, McMaster's opponents love to talk about Columbia's corruption.
Other critics say McMaster’s stint in charge has been anything but a success.
Some legislators say the governor has failed to lead the General Assembly on important issues, such as fixing South Carolina’s crumbling roads. Instead, they say, he focused on his 2018 election bid.
“He strikes me as disengaged,” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, who is supporting Templeton. “I haven’t seen a legislative agenda. I haven’t seen any efforts to influence legislation in the Senate despite repeated attempts to reach out and to get him involved.”
Massey and House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, also slam McMaster for his veto of the 2017 gas tax hike to fix S.C. roads.
Instead of the tax hike, McMaster proposed borrowing up to $1 billion for those repairs. The Legislature shunned that idea as a too-small Band-Aid to a far larger roads crisis and passed the gas tax hike without McMaster’s support.
“He’s done nothing in terms of leadership,” Democrat Rutherford said. “He’s had no bold proposals. He’s come to us with nothing. Most of his steps were in the wrong direction.”
At the same time, McMaster has been criticized from the GOP's right by conservatives including Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, one of his primary challengers. Bryant says McMaster put forward little effort to stop the gas tax hike aside from a “drive-by veto” that he knew legislators would override.
McMaster says he was clear with legislators and the public throughout the gas tax debate — he would veto any proposal to raise taxes. In a recent interview, he also disputed criticism of his leadership style.
“These are very black-and-white issues. We’re not going to have a tax increase,” McMaster said. “I told them I was going to veto that. They all knew it. … I’ve been 100 percent clear. There’s not much else you can do. If you’re clear, you’re clear.”
McMaster also has caught flak for his proposal to force S.C. cities and counties to prove each year that they are not flouting federal law by harboring illegal immigrants.
Opponents panned McMaster's proposal as shameless pandering to GOP primary voters, who want their next governor to be tough on illegal immigration. South Carolina has no sanctuary cities, critics note, and already has a state law requiring local governments to cooperate with federal immigration laws.
“From the very beginning, he’s been focused on getting elected,” Massey said of McMaster. “So many of the decisions were not based on what is good policy for the state. It’s been based on what’s going to play well in the primary. Sometimes, those things are the same. Sometimes, they’re not.”
McMaster, of course, sees it differently,
The sanctuary cities bill was an example of proactive immigration policy, said spokeswoman Caroline Anderegg.
“You don’t wait until there’s a storm to fix your roof.”
'Like a kaleidoscope'
McMaster said he expects changes to the governor’s authority will make him more effective if granted a full four-year term.
With the gas tax hike, for example, the governor was given more authority over the state Department of Transportation’s governing board, long ridiculed as a bastion of cronyism.
A statewide referendum in November also could make the Education Department a cabinet agency, giving S.C. governors more authority to influence education policy.
“That will change everything in education because it will make the governor accountable,” McMaster said.
But McMaster wants to be known for ushering in an era of economic prosperity.
He talks of building research and development partnerships between South Carolina’s largest industries and the state’s technical colleges and universities. He preaches to civic groups about the state’s growing number of high-skill, high-paying jobs in manufacturing, welding and other trades. Now, he adds, S.C. students need to pursue those jobs.
And he thinks economic transformation is the key to improving South Carolina’s position at the bottom of many national rankings.
Poverty, which besets many rural S.C. school districts, is the “enemy of education,” McMaster says. “How do you eliminate poverty? That’s where economic development comes in. … It’s not by giving things away. It’s by opening the door of opportunity for people to have jobs, to work.
“When you have economic growth and prosperity, drug crimes go down. Domestic violence goes down. Marriages go up. Divorces go down. Children are happier and healthier. When people have jobs, everything changes.
"It’s like a kaleidoscope. I understand that. And I know I’ve had experience getting these things done. Those are the things I would like to do.”
'Henry loves the state'
Supporters say McMaster is the governor to do it.
Much of a governor’s job in promoting economic development is to sell the state to a company’s executives, and South Carolina has no better salesman than McMaster, according to friends who have known him for decades.
At a news conference last June, where Samsung announced a $380 million investment to build home appliances in Newberry, former S.C. GOP chairman Chad Connelly said he was struck by the mutual admiration that was evident between McMaster and company executives.
“What it takes to draw people here is just to tell our story,” said Connelly. “He’s done a great job, and so did Nikki (Haley). The best ambassadors for the state are ones who are sincere, and Henry fits that mold.”
McMaster is known to wax poetic about South Carolina’s people and its resources. He often repeats a line about how South Carolinians can have breakfast at the beach and dinner in the mountains.
“Henry loves the state of South Carolina,” said Eddie Floyd, a longtime GOP booster from Florence and University of South Carolina trustee. “He knows practically everybody in the state."
“As far as his passion for South Carolina, you just have to listen to him for five minutes,” said state Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry. “He’s always had this positive, optimistic view of our state and our state’s people.
"That’s him. That’s his nature.”
The Richland Republican became governor in January 2017 after former Gov. Nikki Haley resigned to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Now, he is seeking election to his first full, four-year term.
Education: University of South Carolina, bachelor’s and law degrees
Family: Married to Peggy McMaster, two children
2017-present: S.C. governor
2014-2017: S.C. lieutenant governor
2010: Unsuccessfully ran for S.C. governor
2003-2011: S.C. attorney general
1993-2002: Chairman of S.C. Republican Party
1990: Unsuccessfully ran for S.C. lieutenant governor
1986: Unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate
1981-1985: U.S. attorney, appointed by President Ronald Reagan
1973-1974: Legislative aide to U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond