A jovial S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster deflected criticisms Wednesday from a combative GOP primary challenger about his handling of the state's nuclear fiasco and tax cuts.
McMaster and Greenville businessman John Warren met for a their last debate Wednesday night before Tuesday's GOP runoff at the Newberry Opera House, giving the state's GOP voters their last side-by-side chance to compare the two candidates. The debate was sponsored by S.C. ETV, S.C. Public Radio and the Post and Courier of Charleston.
The two Republicans clashed over tax cuts, their support of President Donald Trump, the failed nuclear project in Fairfield County and their fitness for office.
“Governor McMaster talks about he’s in favor of tax cuts. He’s been governor for over a year, and we haven’t gotten any (tax cuts), so we need to change the coach," Warren, a political novice and Marine Corps veteran, said of McMaster.
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McMaster countered, arguing he has fought for cutting South Carolinians' income tax. He also noted his opposition to raising the state's gas tax last year to repair South Carolina's crumbling roads and bridges, arguing the state has enough money to make repairs but it has been misspent by the Department of Transportation. The GOP-controlled Legislature rejected that argument as untrue.
The governor in November also announced cuts to the unemployment tax rate. The 2018 tax rate dropped an average of 10.2 percent over the previous year, and represented a 36.4 percent drop over the last five years, saving some businesses an average of $20 per employee.
McMaster, 71, repeated he has a grand vision for South Carolina, which he sees as fertile ground for an economic explosion. The state’s jobless rate is at its lowest point since the turn of the century, he noted, adding Volvo officially opened its first U.S. factory near Charleston Wednesday.
"This most important thing we need to do is have experience in the chief executive office," McMaster said. "We cannot drop the ball now. … There's no real time for a learning curve and the governorship is not the place for on-the-job training."
Asked how his military and business experience would translate to the governor's office, where he would have to deal with a strong, independent Legislature, Warren said he knows how to handle a crisis.
"We've got to have someone with the right core competencies to run this state," he said.
Warren argued McMaster has failed the state as a leader, noting S.C. power customers are continuing to pay for the failed V.C. Summer nuclear project and South Carolina’s education system ranks last in the country.
Warren said the nuclear fiasco never would have happened if he had been governor.
"Well, you would have had to be governor 20 years ago when all those laws were passed," McMaster responded, referring to the 11-year-old law that cleared the way for the failed Summer expansion project, drawing applause.
McMaster also said he did much of the work in unearthing long-secret documents that showed how that project had failed.
Asked their biggest concerns for the future of the state, McMaster cited “a lack of inspiration, a lack of hope, a lack of leadership or leadership in the wrong direction.” And said he has a record of accomplishment that inspires confidence.
Warren listed corruption in Columbia, including by McMaster's former political consultant, Richard Quinn.
"We’re not winning," Warren said. "Political cronies are winning."
Warren also went after McMaster's past support of Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence. Warren said he will recruit, fund and campaign for a candidate to run against and beat Leatherman. Former S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley tried that, and Leatherman is still head of the Senate.
Both Republicans defended Trump's recent immigration decisions, refusing to criticize the president's enforcement of a "zero tolerance" policy that separated undocumented children from their parents.
Asked if there is one thing he wishes the president had done differently, McMaster says nothing, calling Trump "magnificent."
Warren said he disagrees with Trump on steel and aluminum tariffs, saying they could harm S.C. businesses.
McMaster argued the tariffs are "still a work in progress."
Warren said he found it "ironic" that McMaster talks about the importance of experience when the governor brags so much about his endorsement from Trump, who had no experience in government before ascending to the presidency.
"We need someone who is an outsider like Donald Trump to go to Columbia and drain the swamp," Warren said.
McMaster countered Trump worked around politics for years as a businessman.
"You're a good man, but you're no Donald Trump," McMaster said to Warren, drawing applause.
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are set to make campaign stops for McMaster in the state Saturday and Monday. Meanwhile, Warren is welcoming Phil Robertson of "Duck Dynasty" fame to Greenville Thursday.
The winner of the June 26 runoff faces Democratic state Rep. James Smith in November.