With the primaries over, here’s what to expect from South Carolina’s governor’s race

Democratic gubernatorial candidate James Smith talks with Gamecock fans before the game at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC, Saturday, September 01, 2018.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate James Smith talks with Gamecock fans before the game at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC, Saturday, September 01, 2018. tdominick@thestate.com

The primaries are over. Labor Day is here. College football is in full swing.

Time for the S.C. governor’s race to rev up and for candidates to reach out to a wider group of voters.

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster and Democratic state Rep. James Smith, both from Columbia, plan to march in the Chapin Labor Day Parade on Monday — the traditional kickoff for the fall campaign.

Smith and his running mate, state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster, also spent Saturday politicking with tailgaters before the University of South Carolina, Allen University and Benedict College home football games in Columbia.

Here’s what to expect with two months to go before the November general election.

‘Jobs’ vs. ‘education’ governor

Expect McMaster to pitch himself as the jobs governor.

Meanwhile, Smith will try to ding McMaster for doing little to help the poor or fix the state’s crumbling infrastructure — since McMaster vetoed a bipartisan gas tax increase that was overridden by the Legislature.

McMaster, the 71-year-old former lieutenant governor who became governor in 2017 with Nikki Haley’s confirmation as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has said he wants to position the state for an economic explosion. He promises to push for lower taxes, less regulation and a leaner, more efficient state government.

“We look forward to sharing the governor’s message of lower taxes, growing jobs and a safer South Carolina with voters on the campaign trail over the next several weeks,” campaign spokeswoman Caroline Anderegg said. “The people of this state want a proven, conservative leader to continue this period of growth, not a far-left liberal that wants to raise their taxes, and that’s the message we’ll continue to deliver through Nov. 6.”

The state’s economy is flourishing. McMaster has announced more than 22,000 new jobs and $7 billion in new investment in the Palmetto State since taking office. The state’s jobless rate is at its lowest point since the turn of the century.

However, the percentage of individuals either working or looking for work has declined, and the state ranks near the bottom in measures of education, health care and poverty compared to the rest of the country.

“You can’t be a jobs governor without first being the education governor,” Smith said Saturday, standing by a Cockaboose next to Williams-Brice Stadium before USC’s noon kickoff. “We want to build a better, brighter future for everyone in our state.”

Appealing to moderates

The 50-year-old Afghanistan combat veteran has touted himself as the centrist “governor for all” who would expand health care coverage, raise teacher pay, stop college tuition hikes and require equal pay for women.

Smith, who claimed his party’s nomination in a landslide as Democrats try to win the S.C. Governor’s Mansion for the first time in 20 years, has cast himself as a moderate who has crossed party lines.

“His whole 22-year career in the Legislature has been working with the Republican majority to get things done, and that’s just second nature to him,” campaign spokesman Brad Warthen said.

However, expect McMaster to hammer Smith on taxes, gun control and abortion rights to paint him as having a more progressive record than voters think.

Smith has signaled support for a government-backed single-payer health care system and has advocated for expanding Medicaid, restricting the retail sale of military-style assault weapons and opposing abortion restrictions.

State Gov. Henry McMaster shakes hands with people before speaking at the U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan Faith and Freedom barbecue fundraiser at the Civic Center of Anderson, S.C. on Monday, August 27. Ken Ruinard Anderson Independent Mail

Helping out the ticket

The November election marks the first time the governor and lieutenant governor will run as as a team.

McMaster picked 51-year-old Travelers Rest business owner and political newcomer Pamela Evette. The Ohio native is a counterweight to McMaster’s lengthy legal and political resume in Columbia, and she hails from the heavily Republican Upstate.

Together, they promise a mix of experience and new ideas.

Smith chose fellow attorney and Democratic lawmaker Norrell of Lancaster. Norrell, 45, also is seen as a moderate Democrat who represents a relatively conservative district in the north-central section of the state that voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

Evette would help extend the reach of the governor’s office and work closely with local governments and state and federal agencies, McMaster has said. He says her business experience and accounting background will bring a set of “fresh eyes” for how to best serve taxpayers.

Smith said Norrell would serve as his liaison, helping advance his legislative agenda in a State House likely to remain controlled by Republicans. She would offer input on policy, find and recruit potential appointees to states agencies and boards, and help oversee state agencies.

The pair will continue to travel the state together this fall, seeking to demonstrate that they are a package deal and would work closely together if elected.

McMaster and Evette, by contrast, have regularly campaigned in separate parts of the state, allowing them to cover more ground. Evette has served as an effective surrogate for McMaster, standing in at events he cannot attend because of his duties as governor.

Republican former Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer joined Smith and Norrell at a USC tailgate Saturday.

“I’m still a conservative, and Henry’s been very good to me, but James is still my friend,” Bauer said. “South Carolina is still an extremely conservative state, and ... since I got elected with James in ‘96 ... it’s moved further and further to the right. Part of that is the fact the Democratic party as a whole has moved further to the left. I will say, in all fairness, James (Smith) hasn’t moved as far to the left as most of them. He is a moderate Democrat.

“But, at the end of the day, it’s still a conservative state and Henry’s got a good record to run on. And, with the economy where it is now, I think it’s going to be hard to replace a sitting incumbent governor that’s conservative.”

What McMaster must do

1. Talk more in detail about what he will do to address issues facing the state, including infrastructure, education and health care.

“I imagine McMaster will try to tie Smith to (being) pro-choice,” Furman University political scientist Danielle Vinson said. “That does appeal to a certain segment (of voters), but that segment is not voting for James Smith no matter what he does. For most moderates and independents, they’re going to be voting across a variety of issues, and (abortion is) not going to be make-or-break for them.”

2. Focus less on support for Trump, and more on South Carolina.

McMaster was the first statewide official in the country to endorse Trump’s 2016 presidential bid, and he has adopted a platform that aligns with Trump’s populist agenda. But while the president gave McMaster the boost he needed to win a contentious GOP primary runoff, McMaster is going to have to do “a strong pivot” to reach out to independents and moderates turned off by Trump’s rhetoric, Vinson said.

“He’s convinced us all that he’s supported by Trump. He needs to move on and talk about what he’s done for South Carolina,” Vinson said.

3. Square push for tax cuts with need for greater investment in infrastructure and education.

“Both candidates will be pushed to provide specific ideas of how you push forward on infrastructure and education,” Vinson said. “For McMaster ... it’s hard to have tax cuts and be advocating for finding more money for infrastructure and education.”

Vinson said both will need to figure out a persuasive or reasonable argument for either raising taxes, or how to reallocate money or partner with private industry to fix those issues.

“The one that figures out how to do that without resorting to partisan rhetoric has a good chance of winning,” she said.

What Smith must do

1. Raise more money.

Neither campaign was left flush with cash after the primaries.

The Smith campaign had $127,663 cash on hand as of the end of June after shelling out $1.3 million to win the Democratic nomination. McMaster had $221,084 in the bank after spending more than $5.4 million in a hard-fought GOP primary and runoff.

Contributions to Smith’s campaign largely came from small-dollar donors clustered around Columbia. But if Smith is to boost his name recognition, he will need a significant fundraising haul — something in the seven figures — which will likely require financial assistance from national Democrats, according to College of Charleston political science professor Gibbs Knotts.

But National Democratic groups have been stretched thin in other, more competitive states. The Cook Political Report rates the S.C. governor’s race as “likely Republican,” meaning it’s not considered competitive, but has the potential to be.

The Republican Governors Association has already waded into the race with a Smith attack ad and a website.

“Voters are ready for change, and the DGA will continue to work with James Smith’s campaign to bring that change to South Carolina,” according to a statement from the Democratic Governors Association.

2. Appeal to independents and moderate Republicans, and persuade young and black voters to cast a Democratic ballot.

“In South Carolina, for a Democrat to win statewide office, (he or she) will need large turnout from the African-American community,” Vinson said. “And young voters in general, even those that lean Republican, may be willing to consider a Democrat that is in the middle. They’re not all enamored right now with Donald Trump and the culture wars happening within the Republican party. That is ripe for Democrats to appeal to, but don’t turn out in large numbers.”

3. Keep the race local while capturing Democratic enthusiasm for a national “blue wave.”

“Democrats, as a party, are not as good turning out in midterms, but this year might be an exception because of Trump,” Vinson said. “He’s motivated a lot of people on both sides. I’m meeting women, particularly, in South Carolina who have not been particularly active … and some college and minority students taking much more of an interest in politics and paying much closer attention because Trump makes them nervous, and that will help Democrats get out the vote.”

But Smith can’t talk explicitly about Trump.

“National headlines will do that for them,” Vinson said. “They need to make sure those voters who are upset about Trump know who the alternative is on the ticket.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Tom Barton: 803-771-8304, @tjbarton83

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