Four decades in S.C. politics, 16 months in the governor’s office and an endorsement from the president were not enough for Gov. Henry McMaster to avoid a runoff in the Republican primary for governor.
The Richland Republican finished first in Tuesday’s primary but fell short of the 50-percent-plus-one vote majority needed to clinch the GOP nomination outright.
Instead, the 71-year-old McMaster faces a two-week fight against a candidate virtually no one knew six months ago: Greenville businessman John Warren.
“This is a great victory tonight!" McMaster shouted to a lively crowd at his primary night party at the Vista Union in Columbia. "We’ve got to do it again in two weeks, and we’re going to do it again.”
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Warren, a Marine veteran and owner of a mortgage lending company, earned a spot in the June 26 runoff despite entering the race only in February. The 39-year-old capitalized on his political inexperience, experts say, spending $3 million of his own money on his campaign to pitch himself as a fresh face who would change the way that business is done at the State House.
The June 26 contest puts McMaster in a precarious spot, making him the first sitting governor in modern S.C. politics to be forced into a runoff.
In the two-week runoff, voters who supported the governor’s other opponents — Mount Pleasant attorney Catherine Templeton, Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant of Anderson and former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill of Kingstree — will have an opportunity to unite behind Warren.
“There’s an attraction to these ‘outsider’ candidates, people who bring these business skills and savvy to government problems,” said College of Charleston political science professor Gibbs Knotts. “Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t."
‘The real-deal outsider’
McMaster, who became governor in January 2017 when former Gov. Nikki Haley resigned to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wasn’t expected to stave off four primary challengers to win the Republican nomination outright.
A late-May poll, made public by Warren’s campaign, showed McMaster 17 points short of the majority he needed to clinch the nomination outright.
But McMaster, the only candidate who could boast the endorsement of President Donald Trump, seemed to rally after Warren and Templeton started firing shots at each other in a close fight for the right to face McMaster in a runoff.
Still, the primary’s biggest question was who would win the race for second: Warren, the self-made businessman and Marine veteran emerging from anonymity, or Templeton, the two-time state agency director under then-Gov. Haley who branded herself as an outsider who had seen enough of state government to know what needed fixing.
Running for elected office for the first time, Warren surged late in the primary campaign as his television ads closed the name-recognition gap that had given McMaster and Templeton an advantage. Those ads also helped promote Warren as a conservative outsider with new ideas who did not owe anyone favors.
A key part of Warren’s campaign was the message that Columbia is broken, an anti-establishment refrain that has resonated with S.C. voters who voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016.
“Warren has this kind of Trump-outsider thing going on,” said Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor and sometimes GOP consultant. “Clearly, Warren is the real-deal outsider. He’s never been in political office or anything. Opposite Henry — everybody knows Henry or has had some interaction with Henry — they’re quite a contrast.”
That message worked. Warren was on the tip of everyone’s tongue at Woodard’s Upstate church Sunday, Woodard said. “And I thought we were here to talk about God.”
Observers say Templeton might have hurt herself with political stunts that got her headlines but also turned off voters looking for a reasonable McMaster challenger. Over the course of the campaign, Templeton pretended to shoot a rattlesnake by firing a pistol, called for the return of firing squads and touted her Confederate roots.
“When you throw kerosene out, sometimes you’re the one that gets burned a little if it doesn’t come across the right way,” said Republican political consultant Chip Felkel of Greenville. “(Warren) stayed on message and directly benefited from an erratic campaign by Templeton. He’s got more bona fides as being an outsider than Templeton does.”
The question now is whether voters who picked one of McMaster’s defeated challengers will unite behind Warren. That's far from guaranteed, and McMaster wasn't far from winning the primary outright Tuesday night.
“Somebody who felt strongly enough to go and vote on primary day is not guaranteed to show up in order to vote for a candidate they didn’t think was worthy just a short while ago,” Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said. “It’s always a good strategy to try and pick up supporters of the folks who didn’t make it to the runoff. It’s not always successful.”
McMaster's strong showing in Tuesday's primary will lend optimism for his chances in the runoff. Experts say McMaster did a good job of touting his endorsement from Trump and preaching the message that South Carolina has done just fine since he took over as governor in January 2017.
“He has played his cards well,” said Knotts of the College of Charleston. “He has the status as the governor to help with name recognition, but he hasn’t been in position so long that he has a record that people can pick apart.”
But Tuesday’s outcome showed the majority of S.C. GOP voters still have some reservations about McMaster after a campaign full of assaults on his ethics and leadership skills.
Warren, Templeton and Bryant were quick to dog McMaster over his relationship with Richard Quinn, his former, longtime political consultant who was indicted as part of the ongoing State House corruption probe.
Templeton, in particular, publicly floated the idea that McMaster could win the GOP primary and then be indicted as part of that investigation, handing the general election victory to a Democrat.
McMaster dismissed that notion as nonsense, saying the only criminal investigations he has been involved with were the ones he led as U.S. attorney for South Carolina and S.C. attorney general.
Warren will hope to catch fire like South Carolina’s past two Republican governors, Mark Sanford and Haley. Both rode populist waves to defeat establishment candidates in their first GOP primaries.
Warren had more than $740,000 in cash on hand to spend on the runoff race, as of his most recent filing on June 2. McMaster still had nearly $770,000.
“(Warren has) got a resume that looks like what America is: self-made, fought for the country, conservative, married a pretty wife, had kids,” Woodard said. “The kind of America a lot of people would like to have and believe in.”
If McMaster is worried, it didn't show at his party Tuesday night.
“When we’re winning like this … you don’t fire the coach and hire a rookie," McMaster told the crowd, repeating a favorite line that contrasts himself and Warren. "You give the coach four more years!”
S.C. Republican gubernatorial primary
With 1,745 of 2,265 precincts reporting
McMaster (i): 116,574