Politics & Government

How Henry McMaster won the GOP nomination for SC governor

A day after President Donald Trump flew to South Carolina to campaign for him, Gov. Henry McMaster won the S.C. Republican Party’s nomination for governor Tuesday.

The 71-year-old Columbia Republican defeated Greenville businessman John Warren, a political novice, after a contentious primary runoff in which both candidates tried to court Trump voters. In the end, S.C. Republicans picked the candidate Trump liked over the Trump-like candidate.

McMaster won all but seven of the state's 46 counties, with Warren carrying the Upstate.

“Our team in South Carolina extends from the White House to the State House to your house," McMaster told a jubilant election night crowd at Spirit Communications Park in Columbia. "It’s the greatest team there is. Be proud of South Carolina.”

McMaster's victory marks the first election since the GOP took complete control of the State House two decades ago that S.C. Republicans have picked an establishment candidate for the Palmetto State’s top job.

In his first bid for elected office, Warren, a 39-year-old Marine veteran, spent some $3 million of his own money to run as a “conservative outsider.” He hoped to appeal to the same populist voters who handed the governor's office to former Republican Govs. Mark Sanford in 2002 and 2006 and Nikki Haley in 2010 and 2014.

Ironically, South Carolina Republican's preference for an establishment Republican also served as a referendum of support for onetime political outsider Trump, who came to Cayce on Monday to stump for McMaster and whose endorsement has been a mainstay in virtually all of the governor’s campaign ads and speeches.

“Everything I’ve seen and heard suggests the president’s approval numbers are very high with the GOP base in South Carolina, and Henry is his guy,” said Republican political consultant Chip Felkel of Greenville. “His ad campaign smartly reminded voters of his alliance with Trump.”

'He can thank Donald Trump'

McMaster always was the front-runner to win the Republican nomination for the right to face state Rep. James Smith of Columbia, the Democratic nominee for governor, in the November general election.

But, first, McMaster had to fend off four primary challengers, including three — Warren, Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant of Anderson and Mount Pleasant attorney Catherine Templeton — who labeled the governor as a career politician and do-nothing good ol’ boy with questionable ethics.

McMaster placed first in the June 12 primary, winning 42.3 percent of the vote. However, Warren, the second-place finisher, was quick to point out that nearly 58 percent of S.C. Republican voters wanted someone else.

If McMaster was discouraged to become the first sitting governor in modern S.C. politics to be forced into a runoff, it didn’t show.

Ultimately, political observers say, McMaster fended off challengers with a smart campaign that mostly stayed above the negative fray, highlighted his relationship with the president and capitalized on South Carolina’s positives — including its growing economy.

McMaster also used his position as governor to set himself up for the primary fight, experts say. Since taking over the governor’s office after Haley’s departure in January 2017 to join the Trump administration, McMaster vetoed a major tax increase — a gas-tax hike that lawmakers passed anyway — and helped kill a proposed $500 million borrowing bill.

As governor, the Columbia Republican also voiced support for pro-life and pro-gun legislation, depriving his GOP challengers of room to run to his right during the primary.

“He can thank Donald Trump for picking Nikki Haley (to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations) and for getting to be the governor,” said College of Charleston political science professor Gibbs Knotts. “As an incumbent governor, you’re more of a proven commodity and your name recognition goes up. All those things help you win elections.”

Where McMaster was criticized, it didn’t stick.

His GOP primary challengers were quick to dog McMaster over his relationship with Richard Quinn, his former, longtime political consultant who was indicted last October as part of the ongoing State House corruption probe.

They also sought to tie McMaster to South Carolina’s ongoing energy debacle, in which S.C. power customers have had to pay more than $2.5 billion in higher electric bills for two unfinished nuclear reactors. The project was abandoned by SCE&G and Santee Cooper six months after McMaster took office, but the utilities raised their rates to finance the now-useless reactors under Govs. Sanford and Haley.

In debates against the more wooden Warren, the folksy McMaster deflected blame for those problems, focusing more on the state’s positives: its natural resources, job growth and people.

“The scandals in Columbia didn’t hurt him,” said Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor and sometimes GOP consultant. “What I thought would be the overriding issues ­— SCANA and the Quinns — were not as big as we thought.”

‘You don’t fire the experienced coach’

Instead, McMaster rose above his primary challengers by showcasing his relationship with Trump — who remains popular among S.C. Republicans — and by focusing on South Carolina’s positives.

McMaster repeatedly told groups that he has announced 20,000 new jobs and $6 billion in economic investment in the Palmetto State since taking office. He also said — time and again — that South Carolina’s jobless rate is at its lowest point since the turn of the century. Given those successes, McMaster said repeatedly: “When we are winning like this, you don’t fire the experienced coach and hire a rookie.”

Still, Tuesday’s primary runoff marks the first time S.C. Republicans have picked an establishment Republican since the party took over all of state government in 2002.

Sanford and Haley were fresh-faced candidates set on disrupting Columbia who rode waves of populism to the Governor’s Mansion. Both initially won the office by upsetting better-known GOP establishment candidates.

McMaster won the right to contend for his first full term as governor in November by staving off a runoff challenger in Warren who compared himself to Trump, as a successful, millionaire businessman, and promised to upend business as usual in Columbia — a pitch that appeals to the S.C. GOP’s populist faction.

That’s where the endorsement of Trump — the ultimate disruptor in Washington, D.C. — helped give McMaster more credibility among GOP primary voters, experts said.

“Tying himself to Trump was a huge, smart strategic move for the primary,” Knotts said.

Reach Wilks at 803-771-8362. Follow him on Twitter @AveryGWilks.

S.C. governor

Results from the GOP runoff with 1,968 of 2,245 precincts reporting

McMaster (i): 152, 987

Warren: 129,327

SOURCE: Associated Press
Related stories from The State in Columbia SC