Warren's rise in runoff suggests bright future in SC politics; next up, Graham?

Greenville businessman John Warren, a 39-year-old political novice, was virtually unknown to S.C. voters in February, when he entered the GOP race for governor. Four months later, Warren forced Gov. Henry McMaster — a fixture in S.C. Republican politics for 35 years — into a runoff for the GOP nomination for the state's top job.

While unsuccessful in unseating McMaster on Tuesday, Warren's future in S.C. GOP politics looks bright, political observers say.

Some think Warren could take on U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Seneca Republican, in 2020, noting he singled out the state's senior senator for criticism during the primary campaign.

"He (Warren) started this race with literally zero name recognition statewide," said Furman University political scientist Danielle Vinson. "The fact he made it to the runoff (is impressive). He worked really hard, real fast, and you can’t chalk it up to just money."

Warren did not address specifically his future plans but hinted at them, addressing a raucous and cheering crowd of supporters in a hotel ballroom in downtown Greenville.

“We started a movement in South Carolina. And that movement is bigger than any one election," Warren said. "Conservatives across this state are united, and they want to take their government back from the special interests, the political insiders. And that message is worth repeating for years to come.

“Tonight was not our night, but I’m confident over years to come that the conservative movement will continue to grow. It will continue to get stronger, and we’re going to come up with conservative reform solutions to all of our problems to make our state great."

Warren, a former Marine infantry officer and founder of the Lima One Capital real estate lending firm, spent at least $3 million of his own money in the five-way GOP primary on June 12, pitching himself as a fresh-faced political outsider who would clean up a corrupt State House culture and reshape state government with his military and business experience.

"Something about his message and his background resonated with GOP primary voters, and generally made a positive impression on people, which bodes well for him if he wants to run for another office," Vinson said. "He wasn’t expected to win, and he’s pushed it this far and hasn’t suffered any major" blunders or hits to his reputation, character or credibility.

The runoff initially looked promising for Warren.

Almost 60 percent of Republican primary voters voted for a candidate other than McMaster on June 12, a clear sign of a rift between the GOP's establishment wing, led by McMaster, and most primary voters who said they wanted change.

Then, almost as fast as Warren's rising political tide came in, it began running out.

Vice President Mike Pence campaigned Saturday for McMaster in Myrtle Beach, and President Donald Trump flew to Cayce on Monday to rally supporters for the governor, just hours before the polls opened.

While Trump played a central role in the GOP primary — starring in virtually every McMaster ad — Warren did not criticize the president, who has strong support among S.C. GOP voters. Instead, Warren benefited by noting that his resume reads a lot like Trump's, a self-made businessman who never before had run for political office and doesn't owe anyone any political favors, Vinson said.

Warren also carried GOP-voter-rich Greenville and Pickens counties in the June 12 primary, full of Trump supporters who knew the president had endorsed McMaster but voted for Warren anyway.

Now, political scientists Gibbs Knotts of the College of Charleston and Dave Woodard of Clemson University see Warren as a potential primary challenger to Graham, R-S.C., in 2020.

During the campaign, Warren knocked McMaster for his support of Graham, whom McMaster called South Carolina’s "favorite son" during a debate.

“Thousands of conservatives across the state would agree that Lindsey Graham is not our favorite son,” Warren responded.

Graham never has been popular with many hardcore S.C. Republicans, who view him as not conservative enough and too willing to compromise. And he appears vulnerable, having one of the highest disapproval ratings in his home state of any U.S. senator.

"He’s (Warren) already run a statewide race and has something none of Lindsey’s (past) challengers had — the experience and popularity," Woodard said. "Warren has money and he has appeal," plus statewide name recognition, an established base of volunteers and supporters, a network of donors and direct connections into the S.C. GOP party apparatus.

"That’s a completely different opponent than what Lindsey Graham has faced," Woodard said. "He’s (Warren) a reform agent and a change agent. He has that mantle of being someone who was inspiring and appealing."

Tom Barton: 803-771-8304, @tjbarton83
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