Politics & Government

Which SC counties will decide who wins the governor’s race?

Who will be SC’s next governor? Here’s what you need to know

Henry McMaster and James Smith are the two candidates for South Carolina Governor in the 2018 midterm elections on November 6.
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Henry McMaster and James Smith are the two candidates for South Carolina Governor in the 2018 midterm elections on November 6.

In the back of a quiet bookstore, huddled around two tables painted as checkerboards, nine men sip coffee and hold court.

The retirees discuss and debate the social, political and global issues of the day — dispensing decades worth of wit and wisdom — as well as the occasional commentary on sexual prowess.

“Did you read the op-ed in the New York Times (from an anonymous senior official in the Trump administration )?” asked 82-year-old retired Camden banker Billy Nettles III. “Wow!”

But the topic of conversation today? The S.C. governor’s race.

Kershaw County swings back and forth, politically.

Kershaw voters helped elect Jim Hodges in 1998 — the last Democrat to hold the S.C. governor’s office — but only by a thin margin. Four years later, they voted for Republican Mark Sanford, who ousted Hodges. County voters also supported Sanford’s 2006 re-election and Nikki Haley’s 2014 re-election, but backed hometown state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, in 2010.

The county northeast of Richland County is among a handful that will be key if Columbia Democrat James Smith, a state representative, is to defeat Republican incumbent Gov. Henry McMaster in November.

For Smith and his running mate, state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster, to win, they will need to run up the margins in the state’s traditional Democratic strongholds of Richland and Charleston counties. They also will need to do well in surrounding and rural counties, including Kershaw, Sumter, Newberry, Lancaster, Florence and Horry counties, while holding down McMaster’s margins of victory in GOP strongholds in the Upstate and Lexington County, according to Democratic and Republican S.C. political operatives.

“He’ll need to go along the coastline and convince independents — look at Horry and Charleston counties — and convince them that McMaster is unpalatable,” said S.C. GOP political consultant Chip Felkel of Greenville.

‘More in-your-face’

Eighty-five-year-old Camden jewelry store owner Frank Goodale voted for Republican Haley but plans to back Democrat Smith.

“It’s a Republican state, and a Republican will (likely) win, but that doesn’t mean I’ll vote for (McMaster) because he’s milquetoast,” Goodale said. “I don’t dislike the man, but (he) sounds like the typical ambitious politician wanting to be in the limelight.”

Goodale sees Smith as a fresh face who might be able to work with the GOP Legislature — “rattle them out of their cages” — to increase state spending on education, infrastructure and health care.

Retired banker Nettles said he, too, supports Smith, for many of the same reasons.

“But on my road, I’m the only one with a Smith-Norrell sign ... and in this group, I see two (other) people who would vote for Smith,” including Goodale, Nettles said. “He needs to get out and meet people one-on-one. People don’t know him.”

The Democratic nominee for governor Tuesday released his first fall campaign ad, “The Call.” The ad, which will run on multiple platforms during the fall campaign, highlights the Columbia attorney’s combat service, fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But neither Nettles nor many in the group have seen the ad.

“I don’t know who James Smith is,” said 91-year-old Ed Walden, whose last vote for a Democrat was for President Harry Truman in 1948.

Kathie Seekircher, 53, cafe manager at Books on Broad and Coffee, personally supports Smith. But she thinks moderate Republican voters — whom Smith must win over to win in November — in Kershaw County, aside from a small handful, are not listening to Smith and his message.

“Running in a predominantly Republican state, he needs to be more in-your-face,” Seekircher said. “He’s very much a people person, but his presence needs to be stronger and better.”

Meanwhile, Columbia resident Ron King, a 76-year-old retired salesman, said he comes from a family of lifelong Democrats but plans to vote for McMaster, citing his push for lower taxes, and efforts to attract jobs and private investment to the state.

“I want us to keep going on the path it’s going,” King said, sitting outside a Camden antique store while his wife shopped inside.

Echoes of 1998

Smith hopes to replicate the success Democrats last saw in 1998, with the election of Hodges.

Hodges ousted Republican incumbent David Beasley, fueled by populist support for a state lottery and an infusion of cash from the video poker industry, angered by Beasley’s attempts to heavily regulate it. Beasley also had alienated some of his base when he briefly called for removal of the Confederate flag from the State House dome.

Hodges was able to form an ad hoc alliance including moderate Republicans.

“The lottery issue was popular with independent Republican voters, which motivated people to get out — being able to raise money (for college scholarships) without raising taxes,” Hodges said.

Like Hodges, Smith says he will be the state’s next “education” governor.

As the state grapples with a teacher shortage, he says he plans to raise teacher pay, without a tax increase, to make South Carolina more competitive in the Southeast, and improve teacher recruitment and retention.

He also pledges to stop college tuition hikes, citing a proposal that Sheheen introduced this year to increase the state taxpayer money given to each college for enrolling in-state students. In return, colleges would have to freeze tuition.

Smith also said he would reform the state’s funding formula for K-12 schools, and boost spending on infrastructure and technology to change the “Corridor of Shame” into the corridor of opportunity and innovation.

But the Democrat has yet to release details on how he would do that.

“We need to hear detailed plans of what he plans to do to improve public education in the state and present credible ways to get there,’ former Gov. Hodges said.

Fading rural vote

Smith also is hoping to catch some of Hodges’ geographic magic.

Like Hodges, Smith’s running mate, Norrell, comes from rural Lancaster County.

The daughter of mill workers, Norrell was the first in her family to graduate from college — a story that Democrats hope could capture rural S.C. voters who voted for President Donald Trump.

However, many of the small, rural S.C. counties where Hodges ran strongest in 1998 have fewer voters. Those small counties also are growing at a slower clip — or losing population — compared to GOP-leaning counties, where Republican victory margins have increased during the last five general election cycles.

“In (1998), you still had a solid rural vote across racial lines. Democratic candidates tended to do well (in those counties), but there’s not enough rural voters today,” Hodges said. “I just don’t see as much solid Democratic voting in rural counties, unless they have a high African-American population.”

That means Smith will need to pick up votes along the coast, where Democrats have lost ground to an influx of mostly Republican retirees.

An analysis of general election results from 1998 to 2014 shows Democrats lost Beaufort County every election. And Berkeley, Dorchester, Georgetown and Horry counties — where Hodges did well — have not gone blue in a S.C. governor’s race since 1998.

“Horry County is one of the counties Trump did the best in, and is one of the fastest growing counties in the state,” College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts said. “It’s very Republican. ... Smith will need to win votes from folks moving into South Carolina from the Northeast, but that’s going to be very difficult.”

That means Smith will need better-than-expected turnout in Columbia and Charleston, and cut into McMaster’s margins of victory in the Upstate — from Anderson to Greenville to Spartanburg counties.

The Upstate

A large part of Hodges’ 1998 success came from using Republican surrogates on the campaign trail to make inroads in the Upstate.

Hodges narrowly lost Spartanburg County and kept the race close in neighboring areas.

“Part of the message (Smith) needs to convey is he’s a different kind of Democrat who will appeal to voters of all stripes,” Hodges said.

Smith has touted himself as the centrist “governor for all” who would expand health care coverage, push for “common sense” gun reforms, protect women’s reproductive health care rights and require equal pay for women.

Campaign spokesman Brad Warthen said Smith wants to transcend political divisiveness and unify South Carolina — rural and urban; independents, Democrats and Republicans alike.

“We want people from across the political spectrum to back us,” Warthen said.

Smith is making some inroads.

For example, a group of well-connected Greenville County residents, most of whom have supported Republican candidates, will hold a fundraiser for Smith later this month.

Among the hosts is Tim Brett, an ex-GOP legislator who worked for former Republican Gov. Carroll Campbell. Brett declined to comment for this article, but told the Greenville News that Smith is a highly regarded politician who appeals to both Democrats and Republicans.

Democrats argue McMaster is vulnerable in the Upstate, where the Republican did not perform strongly in the June GOP primary and runoff.

The governor received only 36 percent of the votes in Anderson, Greenville, Laurens, Oconee, Pickens and Spartanburg counties in the June 26 GOP primary runoff.

Some of that weakness can be attributed to geographic favoritism. John Warren, who won each of those counties in the runoff, is an Upstate businessman, noted Felkel, the GOP political consultant.

Since then, Warren has supported McMaster, as have fellow GOP primary challengers Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant of Anderson and Mount Pleasant attorney Catherine Templeton.

McMaster also saw his vote total increase in the Upstate from the primary to the runoff, albeit slightly, and received roughly twice as many votes as Smith in the region.

More than 138,000 voters cast ballots in the GOP primary in the 10-county Upstate compared to fewer than 43,000 Democrats.

“The numbers don’t exist” for Smith to make a dent in the Upstate, McMaster spokeswoman Caroline Anderegg said, predicting Upstate voters will turn out in droves to keep Smith out of the governor’s office, citing his progressive record.

“There is an awful lot of people in Spartanburg County who like Henry McMaster,” Spartanburg County Republican Party chairman Curtis Smith said. “If (Smith) gets 30 percent of the vote in the Upstate, I’d be surprised. ... We want a constitutional conservative guy whose going to get jobs and look out for us and make sure our tax dollars are properly spent. That’s Henry. He’s got our support.”

But Spartanburg Democratic Chairwoman Angela Geter argues that concerns among Upstate workers and manufacturers about an escalating trade war, brought on by Trump administration tariffs, will enamor Smith to independents and moderates.

“From what I’m hearing there’s a lot of concern about the tariff situation and how it’s going to impact BMW,” said Geter, adding thousands in the area depend on BMW for their household income.

“He’s appealing to the economics of the situation,” Geter said of Smith. “It’s not about party but good economic policy and things that make sense. That’s why I think he will do well (in the Upstate), because of the number of people and smaller companies that rely on ... BMW.”

Smith has criticized McMaster for not taking a more active role in opposing the Trump administration’s tariffs.

S.C. business leaders warn could harm South Carolina manufacturers.

McMaster, a staunch Trump ally, has responded that he has had repeated conversations with the president and his administration about South Carolina’s tariff concerns. McMaster, who says he supports Trump’s position on fair trade, also has asked for policy changes and exemptions for S.C. businesses that have been affected, but thinks a wait-and-see approach is the best way to proceed.

“Smith needs to find a way to appeal to people who see that change is good and who maybe are not rock-solid, hard-core Republicans who are more independent (and) who voted against Clinton and not necessarily for Trump,” Felkel said. “He has to tap into those voters. ...

The question, Felkel added, is: “ ‘Is there enough of them?’ I’m not sure there is to be successful.”


The Cook Political Report rates the S.C. governor’s race as “likely Republican,” meaning it’s not considered competitive but has the potential to be. To win, Democrat James Smith must thread the political needle. For Republican Henry McMaster, the path to victory is easier. A look at what McMaster must do to win:

  • Run up the score in Lexington County, a GOP county that the governor dominated in the primary, offsetting Smith’s expected strength in neighboring Richland County
  • Ignite Republican enthusiasm in the Upstate and run up the score in Greenville, Spartanburg and Anderson counties, utilizing running mate Pamela Evette, an Upstate businesswoman. “She gets people excited that we’ll now have a team helping run this state and keep it going in the right direction,” Spartanburg County GOP Chairman Curtis Smith said. “It’s a dynamic duo that will attracts jobs to the state, lower taxes and fix roads in the state. ... She complements (McMaster) with her accounting and business background.”
  • Win voters in Berkeley, Dorchester, Beaufort, Georgetown and Horry counties to offset Smith’s expected strength in Charleston
Reporter Emily Bohatch contributed to this article
Tom Barton: 803-771-8304, @tjbarton83
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