Nine minutes into his stump speech Monday for Gov. Henry McMaster, President Donald Trump told a raucous crowd that critics would call it a “humiliating” defeat for him if McMaster loses in the GOP governor’s race runoff Tuesday.
“So please, get your asses out tomorrow,” Trump shouted to more than 3,000 supporters gathered at Airport High School in West Columbia.
The rally, McMaster hopes, will drive Trump fans to the polls Tuesday to help him win what is expected to be a low-turnout runoff for the GOP nomination for governor against Greenville businessman John Warren.
McMaster, who took over as S.C. governor in January 2017 when then-Gov. Nikki Haley resigned to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is pulling out all the stops to stave off the 39-year-old Warren, a Marine veteran making his first run for office. Vice President Mike Pence came to Horry County to rally support for McMaster on Saturday.
Trump spoke for about 10 minutes about S.C. candidates — including McMaster and state Rep. Katie Arrington, the Summerville Republican who won the GOP nomination for the 1st District seat in the U.S. House from incumbent Mark Sanford — before turning to other topics, including his efforts to denuclearize North Korea, talk-show hosts he doesn’t like and his budding trade war.
The former reality TV star also talked about the importance of building up the military and “defending our borders because if you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country.”
Trump told the crowd he was sending his love to Arrington, who was badly hurt in a car accident over the weekend but is expected to recover.
“She was out there campaigning against a guy I’ve never liked much,” Trump said, referring to Sanford, a Charleston Republican who has been critical of Trump and lost to Arrington in the June 12 GOP primary. “Tallahassee Trail, it must be a very beautiful place. Unfortunately, he didn’t go there.”
(Sanford claimed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail during one fateful week as S.C. governor, when he actually was visiting his mistress in Argentina.)
The 71-year-old McMaster, running for his first full term, won more than 42 percent of the vote in the June 12 Republican primary. But Warren, who finished second with nearly 28 percent, was quick to note that nearly 58 percent of the state’s GOP voters cast a ballot to end McMaster’s stint in the Governor’s Mansion.
McMaster likely noticed that, too. Political observers say the timing of the Pence and Trump visits was perfect to maximize the Columbia Republican’s voter-turnout effort.
Trump’s rally generated a week’s worth of news coverage, and the president made several tweets reminding the country of his alliance with the S.C. governor, who in January 2016 became the first statewide official in the country to endorse Trump for president.
However, in recent years, big-time endorsements have failed to make much of an impact in South Carolina.
In 2016, then-Gov. Haley and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of North Charleston – both popular among Palmetto State Republicans – endorsed U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., ahead of South Carolina’s first-in-the-South GOP presidential primary.
Rubio then lost the state by 10 percentage points to Trump, whose only major endorsement in South Carolina was McMaster, then the state’s lieutenant governor.
Four years before that, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney boasted the support of South Carolina’s GOP elite. But former U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., smoked him by nearly 13 points in the S.C. Republican presidential primary.
Experts say this visit could be different.
“Endorsements generally don’t matter, except when they do,” said Winthrop University political science professor Scott Huffmon. “Newspaper endorsements, or those from lower-level politicians, it’s better to have them than not. But having Trump on your side, we’ve seen, can move the needle. This rally is going to serve to remind all of the Trump faithful that there’s an election tomorrow and Trump wants them to vote in it.”
The visit also shows S.C. voters that McMaster has a direct line to the leader of the free world, said Republican political consultant and lobbyist Katon Dawson.
“What matters is when you’re the president of the United States, and you’re landing Air Force One for the second time in the last 12 months in South Carolina on behalf of someone, Henry McMaster,” said Dawson, a former S.C. GOP chairman.
The runoff will be a proxy referendum for Trump, showing the rest of the country how strong his base can turn out to support one of his political allies, even when Trump isn’t on the ballot.
Andrew Addy, a 19-year-old from Columbia who stood in line but couldn’t make it into the rally before the doors closed, said he supports McMaster because “he believes in the same things the president believes in.”
“I was a fan of McMaster before Trump endorsed him,” Addy said. “But his endorsement does provide him an extra bump.”
Turner Johnson, a 20-year-old from Columbia, also said he thinks Trump has done a good job.
“I’m glad he’s backing McMaster,” Johnson said. “McMaster has done great for the state so far and continuing out Nikki Haley’s term. I’m interested in doing Navy health care when I’m older. His efforts with veterans has been great and making sure the troops have the funding they need.”
But not everyone at the rally was there to support McMaster.
Chapin resident Jacob Free donned Trump socks, U.S. flag shorts and a Reagan-Bush tank top for his third Trump rally but said he plans to vote for Warren.
Speaking before the rally, Free called McMaster a “career politician,” adding he is drawn to Warren’s experience in business and the military.
Warren himself has tried to counter the late Trump push, telling voters that his business expertise and lack of political experience make him more like Trump than McMaster, a household name in S.C. politics for the past four decades.
The trip pays back McMaster for his January 2016 endorsement of Trump. Back then, Trump was a candidate still seeking legitimacy. A month later, Trump won the S.C. GOP primary, picking up momentum that carried him to the general election.
Warren used that money to introduce himself to S.C. Republicans with a series of campaign ads highlighting his military background and credentials as a political outsider.
Ahead of the rally, the Democratic Governors Association said Trump’s visit was meant to rescue McMaster from allegations of corruption. Warren and other candidates have tried to tie McMaster to the ongoing probe into State House corruption, which led to the indictment of the governor’s former longtime political consultant, Richard Quinn, and several lawmakers that Quinn advised.
McMaster has said he is not a target of the investigation, and two Republican prosecutors involved with the probe have endorsed the governor.
“Even as the Trump circus comes to town, Henry McMaster’s corruption is still the main attraction in this race,” said Democratic Governors deputy press secretary Alex Japko. “The fact that he needed Trump’s help once again shows just how politically damaged he really is. Not even an endorsement from Donald Trump can erase 40 years of insider dealings that define Henry McMaster’s political career.”