Politics & Government

McMaster or Smith? Who won SC’s first governor’s race debate?

Hear opening statements from the McMaster vs. Smith governor debate

Henry McMaster and James Smith are running for South Carolina Governor. Here are their opening statements from the governor debate in Florence on October 17.
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Henry McMaster and James Smith are running for South Carolina Governor. Here are their opening statements from the governor debate in Florence on October 17.

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster and his Democratic opponent in the Nov. 6 election, state Rep. James Smith, faced off Wednesday night in Florence for the first of their two debates.

The State asked three S.C. political scientists and a debate expert from the University of Michigan to decide who won and why.

They picked Smith, while noting that he still faces an uphill climb in the governor’s race.

Here is a look back at the debate through the eyes of College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts, University of South Carolina political scientist Robert Oldendick, Coastal Carolina University political scientist Holley Tankersley and Michigan debate expert Aaron Kall.

Best line or moment

Knotts: Smith’s use of “there you go again” was the best of the night. He used this line in response to McMaster’s claim that Smith would raise taxes. The line was made famous by Ronald Reagan during a debate with President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Reagan is revered in South Carolina, so it was smart to use this line against the GOP governor. It was also an opportunity for Smith to defend himself against the charge that he will raise state taxes, one of McMaster’s biggest criticisms of Smith and a common attack from Republicans.

Oldendick: Smith’s opening line, “If this is winning, I’d hate to see what losing looks like.” It set a contentious tone for the debate and sent the message that Smith’s strategy was to focus on the problems facing the state, which he continued throughout the evening.

Kall: Smith’s best line was: “If this is winning, I would hate to see what losing looks like.”

McMaster’s best moment was in response to Smith’s “there you go again line.” He replied, “That is Ronald Reagan’s line.” I was impressed with McMaster’s immediate recognition and ability to quickly point out that Smith was stealing original (Ronald) Reagan debate material from decades ago.

Tankersley: Smith landed several lines, including the early one about winning and losing, but I think the most powerful punch was: “What I heard, Henry, is that you are going to do nothing.” McMaster’s weakness in this debate was acknowledging that the state has crises to address, while not offering arguments about what he has already done or what he will do to address them. That particular line from Smith underscored that weakness.

Worst line or moment

Knotts: McMaster’s response to how he would convince the Legislature to better fund higher education was the worst line. Senate Finance chairman Hugh Leatherman was in attendance, and McMaster appeared to look down at Leatherman and said, “Hey, Hugh, let’s give ‘em more money.” As an indication that the line fell flat, the moderator responded by saying: “Well, it hasn’t worked so far. You’ve been in the job two years, so, what else?”

Oldendick: McMaster’s answer to the question about whether some of the state’s projected budget surplus should be distributed to teachers (and other state employees). He began his answer by saying that “raising taxes are not the answer and will never be the answer.” He then gave a rather rambling response which included “the need for economic growth” (a theme he turned to repeatedly throughout the evening) without ever directly addressing the question.

Kall: I found it disrespectful that Smith repeatedly referred to McMaster as “Henry” instead of the formal title “governor.”

McMaster’s worst moment came during the Affordable Care Act discussion. He was booed by the crowd and seemed to be confused about the 90-10 (federal-to-state) funding ratio discussion.

Tankersley: McMaster’s response to the higher education spending question, when asked how he would get the state Legislature to increase funding: “Hey, Hugh, let’s give ‘em more money.” This both underscored McMaster as part of the “good ol’ boys” network and highlighted the relative weakness of the governor’s office to move the needle on fiscal policy issues. Not a good look for an incumbent governor who is hanging his hat on a record of low taxes and economic growth.

Who won, and why?

Knotts: Both candidates had good moments and did well. However, I thought Smith was the winner. He had more details in his answers, seemed to connect with the audience by having some key references to Francis Marion University (the debate host) and did a better job contrasting his policies with McMaster’s positions. As the challenger, Smith needed to make the case for changing course, and he scored some points in this area.

Oldendick: As the challenger, Smith needed to introduce himself to the voters, to show himself to be prepared, to exhibit the competence needed to do the job and to stand on equal footing with an incumbent governor. By succeeding in doing this, he was able to win this debate. Having said this, winning one debate is not enough to turn the election, and Smith still has a steep uphill climb if he is to come close to narrowing the gap between he and Gov. McMaster in the less than three weeks remaining.

Kall: James Smith won tonight’s debate. He repeatedly touted his military service and penchant for political bipartisanship. His strongest moment occurred during the discussion of the Affordable Care Act. Audible boos from the debate audience poured in while McMaster discussed his decision to turn down federal money for Medicaid expansion in the state. McMaster seemed a step slow tonight and appeared to have some difficulty hearing some of the questions directed toward him. Smith seized upon this issue by making a joke about McMaster being the appropriate governor for South Carolina 50 years ago.

Tankersley: If we are judging on policy and style, Smith won. He clearly studied the issues and came armed with facts and detailed policy proposals on almost every policy issue that was raised. He was also strong on style – he was tough and stayed focused. But if we are judging on the politics of energizing the base, McMaster won by pounding the “low taxes” message in almost every answer he gave. In a heavily Republican state, those two words are often enough.

Henry McMaster and James Smith state their views on Medicaid expansion during the governor debate on October 17 in Florence, S.C.

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