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SC’s McMaster earns his moment in the GOP convention’s spotlight

Trump favors McMaster over Haley

Republican frontrunner Donald Trump says he'll "take South Carolina Lt. Governor Henry McMaster over the governor any day."
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Republican frontrunner Donald Trump says he'll "take South Carolina Lt. Governor Henry McMaster over the governor any day."

S.C. Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster’s political clout is about to grow stronger.

As Donald Trump’s nomination as the GOP’s presidential pick draws near, the billionaire businessman has asked McMaster to play a “prominent role” at this week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, said Trump’s S.C. chairman Ed McMullen.

McMaster was not included in a list of convention speakers released Thursday by the Republican National Convention. And McMullen, in New York last week helping plan convention details, did not provide details on what role McMaster would play, except to say it would be in prime time early in the week.

“Mr. Trump is a very loyal man,” said McMullen, president of a Columbia public affairs firm.

“He respects and appreciates what Henry did,” being the first statewide official to campaign for Trump across South Carolina. “As a result, Henry will have a prominent role at the convention.”

A convention role would repay the Columbia Republican for his support of Trump at a time when the billionaire businessman was facing a critical contest in South Carolina’s first-in-the-South primary.

In January, McMaster became the first statewide elected official in the country to endorse Trump, surprising South Carolina’s political elite. Subsequently, McMaster attended Trump rallies across the state, introducing the candidate.

“I’m somewhat of a novelty,” McMaster said last week of his early support of Trump, who won South Carolina’s pivotal primary with 33 percent of the vote.

“We are headed to the ash-heap of history if we don’t change,” McMaster said. “That’s why I’m supporting Donald Trump. He’s the man for our time. He’s uniquely equipped to do the kind of work and make the kind of decisions, and present the kind of image of strength and determination that we need.”

Beyond a convention role, McMaster’s early support for Trump could bear bigger fruit for the lieutenant governor if Trump wins the White House, S.C. political observers say.

After a failed gubernatorial bid in 2010, McMaster says he’s interested in running for governor again in 2018.

Asked whether support from a President Trump would boost McMaster’s gubernatorial ambitions, former S.C. GOP chair Karen Floyd responded, “Absolutely.”

“Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States, and it certainly is helpful when the president has had someone come out as early as ... the lieutenant governor did.”

Former S.C. GOP chairman Katon Dawson said McMaster also could get a job in a Trump Administration.

“Would Henry be on the short list for (U.S.) Attorney General?” Dawson said. “He probably would be. He’d be on the short list.”

An RNC boost for SC ambitions?

Whether Trump’s backing would help McMaster in the 2018 governor’s race is uncertain, Dawson said.

The governor’s race is “very personal” for S.C. voters. Candidates also have a hard time getting high-profile backers – including presidents – to campaign with them unless they’re already leading in the polls, he added.

Having backed Trump could pay off or backfire for McMaster, Dawson added.

“If Donald Trump is successful, Henry will get some credit for it. If Donald Trump is not successful, Henry will get some blame for that because Henry is the point man for Donald Trump.”

McMaster also has “historic obstacles” to overcome if he runs for governor again, said Scott Buchanan, a political scientist at The Citadel.

The lieutenant governor’s office – which oversees the state’s Office on Aging and presides over the state Senate – is not commonly a stepping stone into the governor’s office, Buchanan said.

McMaster’s age – 69 – also could present an obstacle.

“Historically, there’s a tendency to elect younger people to the governor’s office,” Buchanan said, noting the “knock on Strom Thurmond way back in ’46” was that “he was too old to be governor.”

McMaster was a GOP establishment candidate in 2010 when he ran for governor. But he came in third in the Republican primary, trailing little-known Lexington State Rep. Nikki Haley, then 38, and then-U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett. Haley beat Barrett in a primary runoff to win the nomination.

If McMaster runs for governor again in 2018, he also could lean on some political alliances he nurtured this year.

McMaster backed several longtime GOP state senators – including state Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and Luke Rankin, R-Horry – in their June re-election bids against Republican challengers supported by Gov. Haley. McMaster’s picks could return the support in two years.

McMaster said he has no plans to campaign for governor in Cleveland.

“My plan in Cleveland is to do everything I can to see that Donald Trump gets elected,” he said. “If that does not happen – if we do not form the team and develop the energy to get him elected – then the nation’s going to suffer, and if this nation suffers, the world suffers.”

Another convention honor

Whether a prominent role at the convention would outshine some of his other political highlights is debatable, McMaster said. “Every moment is a great moment.”

McMaster’s political resume is long.

A graduate of the University of South Carolina’s law school, McMaster was the first U.S. attorney Ronald Reagan appointed after he won the White House.

In 1986, McMaster ran for U.S. Senate but was defeated by Democratic incumbent Fritz Hollings. In a debate, Hollings famously told McMaster he would take a drug test – as McMaster challenged – if his Republican opponent would take an IQ test.

McMaster lost that race, before Republicans dominated S.C. politics.

But with McMaster as S.C. GOP chairman – from 1993 to 2002 – Republicans took control of the S.C. House, state Senate and won back the governor’s office.

If the Trump campaign awards McMaster with a role in Cleveland, it will not be the first time the Columbia Republican has received a convention honor from a GOP presidential nominee.

Then-GOP nominee John McCain made McMaster the 2008 national convention’s sergeant at arms – a tip of the hat to then-Attorney General McMaster for his support in the S.C. GOP primary.

“He took it very much as a serious working position and actually worked it,” said Trey Walker, a longtime McMaster aide and former S.C. GOP executive director, recalling photos showing McMaster escorting people out of the convention hall.

McCain showed his closeness to McMaster in other ways, too, Walker said.

In 2009, the U.S. senator from Arizona invited McMaster, then weighing a run for governor, and his wife to Phoenix to meet his political donors and friends, said Walker, who also went on the trip.

Today, Walker wonders how McMaster’s political future – and that of other high-profile McCain supporters in South Carolina, including U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham – would have turned out differently had McCain won the White House, instead of losing to then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama.

“We can only be left to think about what the world would look like” if McCain had won, Walker said.

“You would wonder ... what would have happened for people like Lindsey Graham (and) Henry McMaster if John McCain had become president.”

S.C. Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster and the GOP

The longtime S.C. GOP loyalist is about to get a role at Donald Trump’s GOP convention. A look at some of McMaster’s political highlights:

▪  1981: First U.S. attorney appointed by newly elected GOP President Ronald Reagan

▪  1993-2002: Chairman of the S.C. Republican Party, a period of rising dominance for the state GOP

▪  2002: Elected S.C. attorney general, serving two four-year terms

▪  2008: Named sergeant at arms for the Republican national convention that nominated John McCain for president

▪  2014: Elected S.C. lieutenant governor

▪  2016: Becomes first statewide elected official nationally to endorse Donald Trump for the GOP presidential nomination

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