The final debate of the 2018 governor’s race featured neither Republican Gov. Henry McMaster nor his Democratic opponent, state Rep. James Smith, both of Columbia.
Instead, their lieutenant governor-running mates — Republican businesswoman Pamela Evette and Democratic state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell of Lancaster — sparred at the S.C. ETV studios in Columbia in their only debate of the year.
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 Democrat Powers Norrell, by a narrow margin.
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Her running mate, Smith, also won both gubernatorial debates earlier this month, according to panels of political science professors assembled by The State.
Here is a look back at the lieutenant governor’s debate through the eyes of College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts, Furman University political scientist Danielle Vinson, retired Francis Marion University political science chair and longtime GOP activist Neal Thigpen, and Michigan debate expert Aaron Kall.
Best line or moment?
Knotts: I really liked when Pamela Evette responded to Mandy Powers Norrell’s passionate case to expand Medicaid. Evette said: “That, right there, is something that would scare every accountant that is sitting right here in the state of South Carolina. The bill is coming, and we’ll figure out how to pay for it when it gets here.” This was a good line because it showed her fiscal conservatism and her focus on being a good steward of taxpayer dollars.
Vinson: A couple of times, Powers Norrell said party doesn’t matter or it’s not about partisanship, rejecting the idea that she and Smith would struggle to get things done with a Republican Legislature. That could appeal to people who are frustrated with partisan politics.
Thigpen: When Powers Norrell – making a point about Evette’s inexperience in state government – said: “If you need to get your car worked on, are you going to go to somebody who has never worked on a car because they’re going to have a fresh idea about how to do it? No.”
Kall: Evette’s best line: “She (Powers Norrell) is not my enemy.
Mandy Powers Norrell’s best line: “It’s not about partisanship. It’s about relationships.”
Worst line or moment?
Knotts: There were not many bad lines, but I thought Evette’s response to the question about whether President Trump bears any responsibility for the negative tenor in today’s political environment one of the worst lines. She said, “I believe there is enough of that on both sides that we could probably talk about.” To me, this was a bit too close to Trump’s response after the tragedy in Charlottesville, when he said there was “blame on both sides.”
Vinson: When Evette was asked to identify something that South Carolina wasn’t winning at and she replied, “Why talk about what things are going wrong?” She seemed to suggest that people just needed to adjust their attitudes. It’s good to be optimistic, but the only way to solve problems is to identify them and discuss ways to solve them. Leaders have to talk about them.
Thigpen: When Evette said the government wasn’t going to improve anyone’s health in South Carolina by giving them a health care card. At least, you’re giving them some coverage with that card.
Kall: Evette’s worst line: “We’ve seen what the stock market has done since the passage of the federal tax cut legislation.” The stock market dropped 1 percent today, and I believe is down overall since the passage of the tax cut legislation. She would have been better served stressing economic growth and unemployment statistics, as the stock market has been very quite volatile.
Powers Norrell’s worst line: “I don’t think the government can regulate how many guns a person can have.” This seemed insensitive given Saturday’s horrific incident in Pittsburgh, where several weapons were involved.
Who won, and why?
Knotts: The debate was a draw. Both candidates performed very well and helped their respective tickets. In an era of political polarization and tribal politics, the candidates articulated different positions, but they did so with respect and never made it personal. Evette made an impressive political debut, debating with considerable poise and a solid defense of Republican ideals and positions. Even though she lacks government experience, her argument that she would bring a “fresh set of eyes” to Columbia was persuasive. Powers Norrell provided more detailed answers and touted her experience working with Democrats and Republicans during her time in the state Legislature. She was at her best when she talked about expanding health care and educational opportunities to underserved communities in South Carolina.
Vinson: Both are clearly competent and did well in their first public debate. I think Powers Norrell won because she made a positive case for what she and Smith would do, explaining their priorities with some specific ideas. But she also made a negative case against McMaster, pointing out what she considers to be shortcomings in his record thus far and raising a few questions about his ability to work with the Legislature.
Thigpen: Powers Norrell. Democrats for years have had such a weak bench. I just saw tonight somebody who could move up ahead on the Democratic side — a candidate for Congress, a candidate for statewide office. You could easily see who was trained in the public arena. Evette had some pretty good answers, but it was usually where both candidates agreed with each other. Powers Norrell should have been on the top of the ticket.
Kall: I thought Mandy Powers Norrell narrowly won the debate. But the real winner was civility in the political and debate process. Following the turbulent last week in the country and American politics, it was refreshing to see two high-profile candidates stress agreement on important issues and seem to genuinely respect each other while on stage. The tone of tonight’s debate was in stark contrast to the general and several primary gubernatorial debates I analyzed. Powers Norrell delivered a high-energy performance and also effectively deployed humor at appropriate moments.