'At the end of the day, we will vote for Henry:' GOP licks wounds after bitter race

John Warren loses GOP runoff to McMaster

John Warren speaks to his supporters after losing the GOP runoff to Gov. Henry McMaster at Westin Poinsett Hotel Tuesday June 26, 2018, in Greenville, SC.
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John Warren speaks to his supporters after losing the GOP runoff to Gov. Henry McMaster at Westin Poinsett Hotel Tuesday June 26, 2018, in Greenville, SC.

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster clinched the Republican Party's nomination Tuesday, but the fight within his party still smoldered.

In his concession speech, Greenville businessman John Warren continued to criticize McMaster, saying he had failed on education, the state's crumbling roads and the nuclear reactor scandal that cost South Carolinians billions.

“We have got to have someone that can present solutions to these complex problems," Warren said, giving no indication that he would support McMaster in November's general election against state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland.

Warren, a political novice who branded himself the primary's conservative outsider, ran on a message of reform, knocking McMaster for his relationship with Richard Quinn. Quinn — McMaster's former, longtime political consultant — who was indicted last October as part of the ongoing State House corruption probe.

Warren's campaign said he and McMaster "had a good, brief conversation on election night, and John congratulated him." But Warren did not endorse or discuss offering his support to the governor.

"We expect that John and the governor will be talking again in the next few days," said Warren campaign spokeswoman Laura Beth Kirsop.

McMaster's campaign insists the governor will be able to unite the S.C. GOP for the November general election.

"Conservatives across South Carolina chose Henry McMaster because he has been a champion for them his entire career," McMaster campaign spokeswoman Caroline Anderegg said. "Under his leadership, our economy is booming and more South Carolinians are working than ever before. We look forward to working together with the entire party to build on this momentum and win again in November."

Henry McMaster beats Greenville businessman John Warren to clinch the republican nomination for SC governor

Healing? Or rift?

McMaster emerged victorious, but only after being dragged into a hard-fought runoff following a sometimes bitter primary that signaled a rift between the GOP's establishment wing, led by McMaster, and most Republican primary voters who said on June 12 that they wanted change.

"Contentious S.C. Republican primaries last personally, but they don’t last publicly forever," said Katon Dawson, a former chairman of the S.C. Republican Party. "Our party doesn’t do really well when we are fighting each other, but we do really well when we have a common enemy — the liberal Democratic Party in South Carolina."

But even after bringing President Donald Trump to the state twice — plus Vice President Mike Pence — McMaster still lost the Upstate, a crucial GOP stronghold.

"At the end of the day, Henry McMaster lost Anderson, Oconee, Greenville, Spartanburg, Charleston and Pickens counties," said S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson. "Two, if not three, of the largest counties in South Carolina to a virtual unknown.

"I haven’t seen an incumbent governor lose those counties since I've been involved in politics."

Republicans "can try to downplay" the rift in their party, Robertson said, but Tuesday's results show a generational shift away from McMaster.

"You have a younger generation of South Carolinians who have moved to jobs in the Upstate," Robertson said, adding those younger voters aren't attracted "to someone who is in their 70s who doesn’t understand Greenville County or the Upstate.

"At the end of the day, that’s the big story," said the Democratic Party chair, adding those who deny there is "a rift or a shift in the Republican Party" are "not capable of adding two plus two."

'I will do anything I can do'

During the campaign, Warren and fellow GOP primary challengers Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant of Anderson and Mount Pleasant attorney Catherine Templeton labeled McMaster a career politician and do-nothing good ol’ boy tied to the odor of corruption in state government.

Before the June 12 primary, Templeton even said McMaster could be indicted as part of the ongoing State House corruption probe.

However, Templeton, who endorsed Warren for the GOP runoff, said this week that she had a "a very friendly and gracious exchange" with McMaster on Thursday morning.

"I told him congratulations on a hard-fought race and that I will do anything I can do to be helpful to unite the conservative movement and move South Carolina forward," she said via text message. "We aren't fractured. We may have done a little bit of fighting amongst ourselves. And SC deserves a new generation of bold conservative leadership.

"But, at the end of the day, we will vote for Henry and his bulldog over a liberal. Every. Time."

Lt. Gov. Bryant, who also endorsed Warren for the runoff, said Thursday he had not spoken to the governor.

But he said McMaster could go a long way toward winning over his hardline conservative supporters by vetoing the state's budget. That budget does not reject federal money that goes to the state's three health-care clinics that perform abortions, an omission that caused Bryant to refuse to sign off on the budget.

McMaster has vowed to veto any money for Planned Parenthood in the budget.

'There's a seat for everybody'

S.C. Republican Party chairmen — past and present — downplay the prospect of splintering within the party, arguing GOP voters largely split based on the candidates' personalities and backgrounds as opposed to policy differences.

The five Republican candidates for governor espoused roughly identical views on major GOP issues — from abortion to gun rights to immigration to taxes., they said. McMaster shrewdly, also loudly, voiced support for pro-life and pro-gun legislation, depriving his GOP challengers of room to run to his right in the primary.

"Other than attacking the incumbency of Gov. McMaster ... they ideologically were very similar," said former S.C. GOP chairwoman Karen Floyd, a McMaster supporter. "What was different was the tone that was used.

"Gov. McMaster presented the facts like a glass half full, while they presented the glass half empty. But when it came to the core issues, they were very similar."

Current party chairman Drew McKissick said the GOP will hold a statewide victory campaign, including a unity breakfast, in the coming months.

"That is going to be integrated – current and former candidates and especially those who were staff and volunteers on the campaigns," McKissick said. "There’s a seat for everybody to fill. ... All have an opportunity to help the ticket and continue to play a role."

Dawson said GOP gubernatorial runoffs in 2002 and 2010 were more brutal, but Republican voters rallied around their party's eventual nominee, handing victories to Mark Sanford and Nikki Haley.

"The difference in the healing process is who gets people in the middle," he said. "A long, hot summer breathes political fresh air into a November general election. That bad blood flows down the drain, and we look forward.

"If you stay home and have a pity party, you usually become a very lonely politician. And I don’t see that happening with any of these people who ran for office. This will create another opportunity for them that they are not aware of."

Tom Barton: 803-771-8304, @tjbarton83