Politics & Government

Smith won first SC governor debate, experts say. Can McMaster rebound in second?

Here are the highlights from the governor debate

Henry McMaster and James Smith are running for South Carolina governor. They had their first debate on October 17 in Florence, S.C., addressing issues such as Medicaid, education and taxes.
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Henry McMaster and James Smith are running for South Carolina governor. They had their first debate on October 17 in Florence, S.C., addressing issues such as Medicaid, education and taxes.

The candidates running to be South Carolina’s next governor will face off for a second time Thursday at Greenville Technical College.

In their first debate, Republican Gov. McMaster painted Democratic state Rep. James Smith as a tax-and-spend liberal. Smith hammered McMaster as a governor without a plan or vision for the state.

While Smith faces an uphill climb in the governor’s race — national pollster Nate Silver from FiveThirtyEight says the Democrat has a 1 in 50 chance of winning — he was effective in contrasting his policies with McMaster’s positions in their first debate., according to S.C. political experts.

The question now? Can McMaster rebound in the second — and final — debate.

Here’s what Smith and McMaster must do in Thursday’s debate to get a leg up before the Nov. 6 general election, according to Republican and Democratic political strategists, and S.C. political scientists:

What McMaster must do

1. Put Smith on the defensive. Smith landed some punches in last week’s debate, said Rob Godfrey, a communications consultant and former adviser to then-GOP Gov. Nikki Haley.

“The governor needs to stay on offense,” Godfrey said. That could mean attacking Smith over recent reports that have raised questions about how he used his status as a disabled veteran to obtain contracts from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The VA removed Smith’s firm, the Congaree Group, from its list of approved veteran-owned businesses after Smith declined to cooperate with an audit, saying he did not have time during the campaign to defend a business that he plans to close if elected. The company previously lost its special status with the VA briefly, but it was restored after Smith appealed.

“(F)or James Smith, the questions can undermine an important narrative that he’s tried to control in this campaign – that’s he’s the best candidate to take care of veterans,” Godfrey said.

2. Throw red meat at GOP voters. McMaster’s campaign and the Republican Governors Associations have been running a media campaign attacking Smith for his opposition to abortion restrictions, his endorsement of fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton for president and his support of expanding Medicaid in the state.

Godfrey said McMaster needs to continue that attack, contending Smith is too liberal for conservative South Carolina despite his two decades of working across the political aisle.

3. Stick to the script but also articulate a vision. McMaster needs to continue to tout the state’s improving economy. But, at the same time, the Republican needs to address Smith’s criticism from the last debate that McMaster is the governor South Carolina may have needed 50 years ago, not today, said College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts.

“It’s important for McMaster to say, ‘Here’s the direction I want to go in,’ ” Knotts said. “He can certainly talk about expanding opportunities in South Carolina beyond just the folks that are doing well right now ... and continuing to have lower taxes and (a) workforce that is prepared and is ready for ... the jobs of the future.”

What Smith must do

1. Continue to hammer policy differences on education and health care. In last week’s debate, Smith criticized McMaster for refusing to accept federal dollars to expand Medicaid and for failing to outline a plan to improve education in the state.

“(Smith) really has to ... put some meat on the bones of his strong policy positions,” said S.C. Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright . “He has to talk about education from a perspective that it’s nonpartisan. ... (That) this is about ensuring every child in South Carolina receives the educational opportunity to reach their God-given potential, and their zip code should not determine the quality of the education they receive.”

Health care is proving to be a vexing issue for Republicans nationally as Democrats charge the GOP will undercut health coverage for patients with pre-existing medical conditions, Smith has to “point to some real-life examples” of how South Carolinians are struggling to find and afford care, Seawright said. And he also must stress the economic benefits that expanding Medicaid could bring to the state.

2. Continue to remind people who he is. “The challenges (for Smith) remain the same,” said Winthrop University political scientist Karen Kedrowski. “James Smith needs to introduce himself, and he needs to give Republican leaners a reason to vote for him as a Democrat and mobilize Democratic voters who don’t typically vote in midterms.”

That, Kedrowski said, means emphasizing his military service and penchant for political bipartisanship.

3. Make the case for change. Knotts and Seawright said Smith needs to convince moderate and undecided voters that one-party GOP control of South Carolina for the last 20 years has not worked, pointing to the state’s near-bottom rankings in measures of education, health care and poverty compared to the rest of the country.

Smith also should say: “ ’Look, I’ve got experience to get things done’ ” while in the minority party and have “a track record of working across the aisle,” Knotts said.

How to watch

The debate will air at 7 p.m. on SC ETV, S.C. Public Radio and on scetv.org.

Tom Barton: 803-771-8304, @tjbarton83
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