The State asked three S.C. political scientists — plus a debate expert from the University of Michigan — for their assessments of Tuesday's Republican gubernatorial debate.
The debate at the University of South Carolina was the last before the June 12 primary. It was also just the second contest that featured all five candidates: Gov. Henry McMaster, Mount Pleasant attorney Catherine Templeton, Greenville businessman John Warren, Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant of Anderson and former state Sen. Yancey McGill of Kingstree.
Here is how the debate went, through the eyes of the University of Michigan's Aaron Kall, Winthrop University's Karen Kedrowski, College of Charleston's Gibbs Knotts and the University of South Carolina's Robert Oldendick.
Best line or moment:
Kall: "Templeton's line: 'When the liberal media has more integrity than Henry McMaster, it's time for a new governor.'
"John Warren's line that 'Catherine Templeton is a triple-threat to the conservative movement' was the second best debate zinger of the evening. In a light moment of honesty, Kevin Bryant saying 'none of the people on my left have attacked me because they like me.'
Kedrowski: "My nod goes to Yancey McGill when discussing the allocation of transportation funds with his line, 'Most of my bridges got fixed.' Of course, his advocacy as a state senator exemplifies what his opponents find problematic.
"My No. 1 runner up is John Warren's come back to Governor McMaster when he said 'Fixing one bridge? That's what you're bragging about?' Really nice retort that McMaster could not respond to.
"My No. 2 runner up is Catherine Templeton's line, 'When the liberal media has more integrity than the governor it's time for a new governor.' It was catchy and focused on the Republicans' favorite bete noir, the media. Her follow-up line when she imitated McMaster's accent with 'fair 'nuff' was very funny, too."
Knotts: "The best line of the night was John Warren’s response to a question about roads and the Department of Transportation. He said: 'If you like the way our roads are currently, you should continue to vote and support Gov. McMaster. But if you’re not happy with your roads, if you want a strategic vision and strategic plan on how to fix them, then you should turn to the rookie like me. I’m a rookie when it comes to government, but I’m not a rookie when it comes to business and leading people in combat.'
"This was a good line because it was a direct challenge to one of the Gov. McMaster’s key arguments, 'When we are winning like this you don’t fire an experienced coach and hire a rookie.' It is hard to argue that we are winning in terms of roads and infrastructure, and this is a place where experience hasn’t seemed to help improve conditions for most South Carolinians."
Oldendick: "The best moment of the night was Templeton’s response to McMaster’s assertions about her 'no bid' jobs. Her response was forceful and provided a reasonable explanation as to how these positions came about. There were a number of good lines, but the best probably belonged to Templeton: 'When the liberal media have more integrity than the Governor of South Carolina, it’s time for a new governor.'
Warren also had a good line when he said of Templeton, “Don’t use guns as a prop to attack fictitious snakes.”
Bryant’s best was when he said to McMaster, “When I move in in January, Henry, you’re welcome to come see me.”
Worst line or moment:
Kall: "I thought it was a mistake for John Warren to refer to himself as 'the rookie' early in the debate. It's smart to stress a solid business background, but the winning candidate must be battle-tested and ready to perform the duties of the office on day one. Henry McMaster probably shouldn't have used the phrase 'I'm catching fire' in response to being rhetorically tag-teamed by several other opponents. Rather than admit to being under siege in real time, Mr. McMaster should have gone on the attack in an attempt to reverse the narrative and political dynamic he was facing.
"After watching the two debates, it appears the only thing both political sides agree on is that South Carolina ranks dead last as a state in terms of education. Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be any consensus on how both sides can work together to improve this abysmal ranking."
Kedrowski: "The candidates' chronic, genetic, inability to answer the questions that were asked. This was pervasive."
Knotts: "One of the worst lines of the night was when Catherine Templeton talked about being fired form the State Ports Authority. She said she was fired because she reported corruption, but in her explanation, she said, 'I gave up a quarter of a million dollar [per year] job because I did the right thing.' This was a bad line because it reminded voters that she left a government position as head of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and walked through the revolving door to take a quarter million dollar a year job at the State Ports Authority. It was also a bad line, because according to the 2016 U.S. Census, the state’s per capita income is $25,521, considerably less than Templeton was making at the Ports Authority."
Oldendick: "The worst moment of the night was Gov. McMaster's response to the ethics question. In this segment several of the other candidates had mentioned Richard Quinn, but he avoided this path and chose to mention his 'law and order' experience and to attack Ms. Templeton for her 'no-bid' jobs.
"There were two other moments that perhaps were not 'worst,' but certainly seemed strange. One was Gov. McMaster talking about having children at the governor’s mansion and “having Burt Bacharach up there.” This seemed unrelated to any of the questions being addressed.
"The second was Yancey McGill’s response to the question about things that were said about him in his opponents’ ads. This elicited a response in which he mentioned a number of people in the audience and wound up talking about his wife embracing him — neither of which were related to the question."
Who won, and why?
Kall: "I think Catherine Templeton narrowly won tonight's debate. She continually touted her outsider status and positive working relationship with popular former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. Henry McMaster was a close runner-up and finished strongly by talking about how strong political partnerships can deliver a lot of new jobs to the state."
Kedrowski: "My pick is Kevin Bryant. He actually answered the questions that were asked and had some of the best one liners. He stayed above the fray and looked dignified, especially when his opponents were attacking each other. Mr. Bryant used his legislative record effectively and framed it as "action" rather than promises or pledges."
Knotts: "I thought Catherine Templeton and John Warren fought to a draw. They were both well prepared for the debate, worked in their key talking points, and added some new material. In addition, both Templeton and Warren went after the incumbent, Henry McMaster, but also got in some good jabs at each other. If there is a runoff, the polling indicates that it will be McMaster and either Warren or Templeton. As a result, it was important for Templeton to attack Warren and for Warren to attack Templeton."
Oldendick: "There was no clear-cut winner in the debate, but Catherine Templeton gave the best overall performance. Her answers were consistently strong and she was able to continue to promote themes that seemed to have served her well in the campaign — her 'Buzzsaw' label, her ties to Nikki Haley, and the fact that she has government experience without having been an elected official.
"John Warren was a close second. He also was able to re-emphasize the themes that have contributed to his rise in the polls — if you learned nothing else in the debate, you know that he is a businessman, a Marine, and a conservative. But will this be enough to convince Republican primary voters to make him their candidate?"