Politics & Government

McMaster, Smith spar over tariffs, abortion and more in final SC governor debate

Watch the two South Carolina gubernatorial candidates make their opening statements

The two candidates running for S.C. Governor, Republican Henry McMaster and Democrat James Smith, face off in a live televised debate. Hosted by Charles Bierbauer.
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The two candidates running for S.C. Governor, Republican Henry McMaster and Democrat James Smith, face off in a live televised debate. Hosted by Charles Bierbauer.

Tariffs, taxes, abortion and the state’s ongoing nuclear debacle took center stage Thursday in the final televised debate in South Carolina’s governor’s race.

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster and Democratic state Rep. James Smith, both of Columbia, debated for the second and final time at Greenville Technical College before the Nov. 6 general election.

McMaster repeated his warning that businesses would flee the state if a Democrat takes the governor’s office for the first time in two decades. He also continued to tout the state’s improving economy, noting companies have promised to add more than 23,000 new jobs and make $8 billion in new investment in the Palmetto State since he assumed office.

“We are growing fast, and people are working and making more money,” he said.

Smith continued to criticize McMaster for refusing to accept federal dollars to expand Medicaid and for failing to outline a plan to improve education in the state. The Democrat also emphasized his military service and penchant for political bipartisanship.

But, he said, McMaster has failed as a leader.

“Under your watch, South Carolina has the worst health care outcomes, but we pay the most for it,” Smith said.


Smith slammed McMaster, a close ally and supporter of President Donald Trump, over the White House’s “job-killing tariffs.”

“All we hear from Henry is: ‘Have patience.’ ... Well, the hard-working people of South Carolina deserve better than that,” Smith said, adding S.C. manufacturers, including BMW, have warned they said to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in sales.

S.C. business leaders say Trump’s tough trade policy toward China and European countries could cost the Palmetto State jobs as manufacturers shift production overseas, where it costs less to do business.

If elected, Smith said he would marshal support from S.C. chambers of commerce and the state’s congressional delegation to the lobby the administration against its trade policies.

McMaster said he supports Trump while “we’re in a strenuous negotiation” period with other countries. And, he added, he has made it clear to the Trump administration that he doesn’t want tariffs that hurt SC businesses.

“We got satisfaction on Element (TV maker) ... quickly,” McMaster said.

Element made national news in August after it blamed Trump’s tariffs on imported Chinese components, used in its TVs, for its decision to close and lay off 126 workers in Winnsboro. However, Element last month told Fairfield County officials it would keep its Winnsboro plant open after receiving a critical exemption from the latest tariffs.


Asked about his veto of $16 million in federal and state money for health-care services as part of an effort to defund Planned Parenthood, McMaster argued S.C. tax dollars should not help subsidize the operations of an abortion provider.

Planned Parenthood has sued the state over an executive order that McMaster issued this summer, booting the health-care provider from the state’s Medicaid provider network.

“Those beating hearts that (would have been) eliminated in those places will become full adults,” McMaster said,. adding that is worth the legal fight, where legal fees could exceed what the state reimburses Planned Parenthood. “We are going to eliminate the scourge in South Carolina.”

Just a fraction of that money — $82,000 last year — went to Planned Parenthood, all for non-abortion services, including birth control, gynecology exams and testing for sexually transmitted diseases.

Smith called McMaster’s veto a “pure political stunt that put at risk the health of thousands of South Carolina women that, frankly, don’t deserve the way you’ve treated them.”

In the end, he predicted, the state will lose the Planned Parenthood suit, and McMaster’s action could cause more abortions by curtailing Planned Parenthood’s birth-control efforts.


McMaster repeated businesses won’t come to the Palmetto State if they know the governor previously supported tax hikes as a legislator, referring to the times that Smith has voted to raise taxes, many involving increasing the state’s cigarette tax.

“I want to reduce taxes,” the governor said. “I want to reduce regulations. I want to keep the people safe, and I want to educate the children.”

McMaster has proposed a 15 percent cut in the state’s income tax and eliminating state income taxes on retired military and first responders. He also said he planned to announce a cut in the unemployment tax for businesses Friday.

Smith said he only has voted for pro-growth tax initiatives sponsored by Republicans, including a bipartisan gas-tax hike to fix the state’s crumbling roads and bridges. McMaster vetoed that tax hike but was overridden by the GOP-controlled General Assembly.

Nuclear debacle

Asked about the state’s $9 billion nuclear fiasco, Smith said South Carolina needs wholesale utility reform, and he opposes current offers to sell the state-owned Santee Cooper utility.

Gov. McMaster has pushed selling the utility — which supplies electricity to more than 2 million South Carolinians, directly and indirectly — to pay off its debt from the failed V.C. Summer nuclear expansion project.

Smith said Santee Cooper is an important economic development tool for the state. But, he added, It should be more efficient and use the resources it has to explore renewable and more efficient energy.

McMaster said he will require that SCE&G customers not pay another penny for the failed nuclear reactor project and get all their money back. He also accused Smith of taking a walk on the final House vote on cutting SCE&G rates by 15 percent.

Smith called the governor the “utilities candidate,” noting SCE&G parent SCANA bundled at least $115,000 in contributions for McMaster’s campaign

McMaster scoffed. “I’m the one that brought everything to light with the shenanigans (with SCANA and Santee Cooper),” he responded.

The governor forced Santee Cooper to release the Bechtel report, which showed SCE&G knew the project was troubled long before it collapsed, and said he “removed incompetent management” at Santee Cooper.

The candidates’ lieutenant governor-running mates, Greenville Republican businesswoman Pamela Evette and Democratic state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrel of Lancaster, will debate at 7 p.m. Monday at the ETV studio in Columbia.

Business dealings

McMaster knocked Smith over recent reports that have questioned whether he used his status as a disabled veteran to obtain contracts from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Meanwhile, Smith hit McMaster over his reputation as a negligent landlord in downtown Columbia, pointing to a report published Wednesday by The Post and Courier detailing conditions at a McMaster-owned boarding house, near the University of South Carolina.

“Students act like students … They break a lot of things, and we fix them as fast as we can,” McMaster said, arguing photos published by the Charleston paper showed “things under renovation now.”

“We have 100 percent occupancy,” he said. “Students are waiting in line to move in. … They’re nice properties.”