Politics & Government

McMaster's runoff win got help from Trump – but now comes the hard part

Gov. Henry McMaster Tuesday enjoyed the benefits of being friends with President Donald Trump.

Now McMaster has until November 6 to make the case that South Carolina benefits from that friendship, too. It won’t be an easy case to make.

For all the fights McMaster has taken to Washington on behalf of the state, the incumbent Republican has relatively little to show for his effort.

“There is no doubt being the president’s friend is good for South Carolina, but until that’s transferred into something tangible like extra funding for this state, or addressing state critical needs, it’s not usually valuable,” said Matt Moore, former South Carolina Republican chairman.

“He has to better explain how being so close to the president benefits South Carolina. He hasn’t been successful yet,” he added.

McMaster won his primary runoff Tuesday night against John Warren, 52-48 percent with 85 percent of precincts reporter, according to early numbers reported by the Associated Press – in large part thanks to Trump’s endorsement, which brought the president to the state on the eve of the election. Trump holds an 80 percent approval rating among South Carolina Republicans, according to a Winthrop University poll from April.

McMaster argued throughout his campaign that his relationship with Trump wasn’t just self-serving. Being liked by the president, reasoned the governor, would benefit everyone.

South Carolinians’ interests are being represented at the highest levels of the government,” McMaster told McClatchy.

McMaster endorsed Trump in 2016 ahead of the state’s presidential primary election, and Trump has returned the favor by taking McMaster’s calls and making administration officials accessible.

For many Republican voters, this argument resonated Tuesday.

“I know the governor’s got a close, personal relationship with the president,” said Nancy Mace, a Republican state representative who worked for Trump during his 2016 bid. “That’s what the people of South Carolina need right now.”

But the power of the narrative that McMaster has clout in Washington will be tested during the general election campaign.

That’s when McMaster will have to woo voters of both parties in a race against Democrat James Smith. And so far, it doesn’t appear Trump’s loyalty to McMaster extends far beyond agreeing to appear at campaign events and compose enthusiastic tweets.

McMaster did score a major win a few weeks ago, when the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would put $49 million towards deepening the Charleston Harbor, perhaps the state’s top economic priority in need of federal funds.

The governor fought hard, personally appealing to White House chief of staff John Kelly as well as Mick Mulvaney, White House budget director and ex-South Carolina GOP congressman, for the money.

McMaster’s other overtures have fallen flat.

He spent much of last fall traveling to Washington, D.C., for face-to-face meetings with high-level administration officials and aides, urging them against imposing financial penalties on large residential washing machine imports.

McMaster argued the tariffs could destroy the viability of a Samsung home appliance plant that had only just opened in Newberry, S.C. Company officials have promised to create hundreds of jobs.

“Newberry is not on everybody’s world map, but it’s on the world map in Washington, D.C.,” McMaster boasted at the time.

Trump’s trade representative levied the tariffs in January. The Newberry plant is still waiting to see the effects.

McMaster’s personal meetings with Energy Secretary Rick Perry have not secured any commitments to help ease the fallout from a major failed nuclear power project in the state.

Nor did Perry intervene to stop the administration from moving to shutter a nuclear fuel factory known as MOX at the Savannah River Site, which prompted the state’s attorney general to sue the administration.

Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said McMaster could use all of his influence with Trump to exempt South Carolina’s coast from the administration’s plan to expand offshore drilling, similar to the carve-out Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott was able to procure.

“I believe he could stop it for the sake of South Carolina if he dug in and decided this is definitely something he wanted to burn a canoe on,” Sanford said.

McMaster has spoken to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to register his disapproval but nothing has come from the discussions yet.

With the governor short on victories, Jaime Harrison, former South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman who now holds a leadership role with the Democratic National Committee, offered a preview of what Democrats will have to say about the McMaster-Trump rapport in the months ahead.

“I can’t see anything that McMaster got out of Trump other than getting Nikki Haley out of the governor’s mansion so he could become governor,” Harrison said. He was referring to Trump’s decision to nominate then-Gov. Haley to be United Nations Ambassador, which allowed then-Lieutenant Gov. McMaster to ascend in early 2017.

Among Republican voters, McMaster’s line to Trump is supposed to be an advantage, but it’s not clear whether that will be compelling to voters one way or another – especially without more clear wins.

“If he could deliver something from the Trump administration, I think that matters to primary voters,” said College of Charleston political science professor Gibbs Knotts. “In the general election, it will be tougher, because Trump is so polarizing” between the two parties.

Tom Barton of The State contributed to this report.