Republican Gov. Henry McMaster and Democratic state Rep. James Smith will debate for the first time Wednesday in their race to be S.C.’s next governor.
The candidates will face off at 7 p.m. at Francis Marion University in Florence in the first of two televised debates. A second debate will be held Oct. 25 at Greenville Technical College.
McMaster goes into the debate with a large lead, according to a new poll from the Atlanta-based Trafalgar Group. The poll, conducted last week, says McMaster’s numbers bumped up after the confirmation fight over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Nationally, that fight has galvanized GOP voters in red states, matching earlier Democratic enthusiasm.
Of 4,830 likely voters, 55.5 percent said they support McMaster, compared to 32 percent who back Smith. More than 12 percent of those surveyed were undecided. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 1.61 percentage points and a 95 percent confidence level.
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Here’s what Smith and McMaster must do in Wednesday’s debate to get a leg up before the Nov. 6 general election, according to Republican and Democratic political strategists, and a S.C. political scientist:
What McMaster must do
1. Focus on his record and the economy. Since taking office in 2017, the governor has announced companies plan more than 23,000 new jobs and $8 billion in new investment in the Palmetto State. Meanwhile, the state’s jobless rate has dropped to a record low.
“The governor’s got the advantage of not only name ID, but the advantage of working for the people of the state and having them see the results he’s delivered,” said Rob Godfrey, a communications consultant and former adviser to then-Gov. Nikki Haley.
McMaster needs to emphasize his long history and experience serving South Carolina — first, as an appointed U.S. attorney under Ronald Reagan; then, as S.C. attorney general; later, as lieutenant governor; and, now, governor, said Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University.
2. Drive the conversation. The more McMaster can steer the conversation to focus on his experience and leadership, the fewer opportunities Smith will have to draw blood, Godfrey and Huffmon said.
3. Avoid a major mistake and stay calm. Perhaps the most important rule of debate season is to avoid slipping up. A memorable gaffe easily could go viral and give Smith an easy punchline.
McMaster also needs to exude a calm confidence as Smith tries to get under his skin, Huffmon and Godfrey said.
“In the (GOP) primary runoff debate, the governor flourished,” Godfrey said. “He was confident, and he was relaxed, and he was energized,” as a jovial McMaster deflected criticisms from a combative challenger.
“And (McMaster) built off that momentum heading into the closing days of that runoff,” Godfrey said.
What Smith must do
1. Remind people who he is. According to his campaign’s own internal polling, only roughly four in 10 S.C. voters recognize Smith’s name, despite his more than two decades in the S.C. House.
Smith will need to highlight his biography — combat service, fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan — and his record of working across the aisle with Republicans, who control the S.C. Legislature, said S.C. Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright.
“He needs to focus on his ability to get things done as part of the minority party … to deliver on issues important to everyone in South Carolina, not just one political party,” Seawright said.
2. Show some fight. Smith has been critical of McMaster — over education, infrastructure and health care funding to name a few issues — but will need to be more pointed in the debate, Godfrey and Huffmon said.
“He has to draw some blood in this debate ... and talk about differences (he has with McMaster) in a way that is memorable” Godfrey said.
Seawright said Smith has to “block and tackle.”
“He has to block Republican attacks against him” in ads painting him as too liberal for conservative GOP-controlled South Carolina, Seawright said. “And he has to tackle the big issues that have been troublesome to our state for a very long time,” including education, health care and poverty.
3. Give people a reason to vote. Nationally, political handicappers rate the S.C. race as likely Republican, meaning it is not considered competitive but has the potential to be. Outside of Columbia, Godfrey says the race has fallen off many voters’ radars.
“He’s got to give people a reason to show up” and vote, Seawright said. “He has to communicate with his base, but he’s also got to convince ... independents. He’s got to speak directly to their hearts, talking about issues that do not come with a partisan tone — health care, education, jobs and the economy, and the environment.
“He has to remind voters that this election is not about what South Carolina used to be or what it is today, but what South Carolina can be in the future” and how he will guide it there.
How to watch
▪ The debates will air at 7 p.m. on SC ETV, S.C. Public Radio and on scetv.org.
▪ Charles Bierbauer, a former longtime CNN correspondent and former dean of the University of South Carolina College of Information and Communications, and Andy Shain, the Charleston Post and Courier’s Columbia bureau chief, will moderate the debates.