Politics & Government

Stakes high for McMaster, Smith to avoid runoff in SC governor's race

At a campaign stop in Rock Hill Wednesday morning, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster focused on law enforcement and school safety.
At a campaign stop in Rock Hill Wednesday morning, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster focused on law enforcement and school safety. hgsmoot@heraldonline.com

Stakes in Tuesday's primaries will be particularly high for Republican S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster and Democratic state Rep. James Smith.

Both need to avoid a runoff, political observers say.

McMaster is the de facto Republican incumbent, and Smith is seen as the golden boy of the S.C. Democratic establishment.

Runoffs, historically, are not kind to incumbents. The fact that an incumbent like McMaster might be dragged into one means at least half of primary voters will have rejected the GOP establishment, said College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts.

"For those who just want change, it could be trouble for McMaster because he is an establishment politician who has been involved in South Carolina politics" for decades, Knotts said.

The same goes for Democrat Smith.

If they're pulled into runoffs, Smith and McMaster risk their challengers and supporters uniting to buck the establishment, Knotts said.

McMaster is seeking his first full term in office. The Richland Republican became governor in January 2017 after then-Gov. Nikki Haley resigned to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Recent polls have shown McMaster leading his primary challengers. But surveys also show a majority of likely primary voters do not support him.

No sitting governor from either party ever has been forced into a runoff during the modern era of S.C. politics. However, McMaster acknowledged Thursday in Anderson that a runoff is likely, saying it is difficult for a candidate to win 50 percent-plus-one of the vote in a five-way primary.

And polling from Michigan-based Target Insyght showed nearly half of S.C. Democratic primary voters were undecided or unaware of the candidates in the three-way Democratic race.

"The main questions of this campaign (for governor) is, 'Do you throw the rascals out for SCANA and the Quinn scandal, or do you keep them in?' " said Dave Woodard, Clemson University political scientist and GOP consultant, referring to the nuclear plant fiasco that has led to higher power bills for S.C. customers and the ongoing State House corruption probe.

"The polls are showing voters are upset about SCANA and the Richard Quinn scandal," Woodard said. "Whether that transfers into 'throw somebody out'? We’ll have to wait and see."

McMaster needs to give voters 'something positive to vote for'

McMaster, however, has several advantages if he faces a runoff, Knotts said. Chief among them are his statewide name recognition, endorsements and fundraising.

McMaster has secured key pro-life, pro-gun and pro-business endorsements that normally are important to GOP primary voters. S.C. Citizens for Life, the National Rifle Association and Republican President Donald Trumphave supported him. And on Wednesday, he picked up a slew of endorsements from business leaders across the state and several legislators.

"With a long list of new endorsements ... we are encouraged by and excited about the momentum behind our campaign, and look forward to victory, whether it's on Tuesday or in two weeks" in the June 26 runoff, McMaster campaign spokesman Caroline Anderegg said in a statement.

McMaster's two chief primary challengers, Mount Pleasant labor attorney Catherine Templeton and Greenville businessman John Warren, are polling neck and neck for second place in the GOP race.

Both are running as conservative political outsiders promising to put a stop to government corruption. They have knocked McMaster for his ties to Richard Quinn, McMaster's former political consultant who was indicted in the ongoing State House corruption probe.

South Carolina's economy, though, 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. The state’s jobless rate is at its lowest point since the turn of the century.

"When we are winning like this, you don't fire the experienced coach and hire a rookie,” McMaster said in Tuesday's GOP debate.

But that argument may not be enough to sway primary voters in a runoff, Knotts said.

"He has to give voters something positive to vote for, and be able to have some plans about moving forward, and not just make it, 'OK, things are going fairly well. Keep me in,' " Knotts said.

Added Woodard: "When you’re dealing with a runoff, you’re dealing with voter intensity. A challenger can win in that circumstance if they can ignite their base. It’s small, but it’s intense and can be potent.

"(McMaster) has to try to get (win) a base that is a little bit upset … about what’s happening in Columbia."

For Smith, runoff would be an 'insult'

As with McMaster, Smith's advantage and weakness lies in his long tenure in S.C. politics, Knotts said.

"Democrats really want to shake up state politics and are fed up with the system," he said. "An anti-Columbia change wave is not good for Smith."

Smith is running against Charleston technology consultant Phil Noble and Florence anti-trust attorney Marguerite Willis. Much like the GOP race, both have positioned themselves as outsiders.

They have gone after Smith's legislative record, painting the longtime legislator as a part of the establishment and the problem.

Smith faced jabs in a Monday debate from Noble and Willis on his association with former Republican lawmakers who have pleaded guilty to State House corruption charges and resigned from office.

His backers, though, argue the Columbia attorney is progressive enough to win the primary and has the crossover appeal necessary to beat a Republican in November. He is an Afghanistan combat veteran who received a Purple Heart and supports the Second Amendment but also wants "common sense" gun control reform.

Smith and his running mate, state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster, have crisscrossed the state in the last week. The pair have met with voters from barbershops to county party offices to high school students who organized Charleston's March for Our Lives rally, pushing for gun control.

Additionally, volunteers have knocked on doors in a dozen communities and logged more than 27,000 calls to voters to highlight Smith's support for Medicaid expansion, improving the state's education system and support for gun reform, said campaign spokeswoman Alyssa Miller.

"The voter in Orangeburg is not asking about (former state Rep.) Rick Quinn and inside baseball in Columbia, but they’re worried about their health care and education," Miller said. "What sets (Smith) apart from Marguerite and Phil? He has the experience and ideas to be governor on day 1."

Should Smith be pushed into a runoff, Miller said the campaign would continue to "do the exact same thing."

"We see a runoff as another way for people to continue to get to know James and get his positive vision out for the state," she said.

Smith has amassed 22 years in the S.C. House of Representatives and has the backing of the Democratic establishment. He has won endorsements from former Vice President Joe Biden and key African-American S.C. lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia. And he's raised more money than his opponents.

"A runoff for Smith in the Democratic primary, I think, is an insult," Woodard said. "A runoff says there’s a split in the party, which makes it even worse" as Smith and Democrats try to take back an office that they last won 20 years ago.

Tom Barton: 803-771-8304, @tjbarton83