State Politics

Will Kavanaugh drama widen SC Gov. McMaster’s big lead over Democrat Smith?

Who will be SC’s next governor? Here’s what you need to know

Henry McMaster and James Smith are the two candidates for South Carolina Governor in the 2018 midterm elections on November 6.
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Henry McMaster and James Smith are the two candidates for South Carolina Governor in the 2018 midterm elections on November 6.

A new poll shows Republican S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster with a commanding lead over Democratic state Rep. James Smith just five weeks before the Nov. 6 election for governor.

McMaster also could get a boost from the fight over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Nationally, that fight has galvanized Republican voters in red states, matching earlier Democratic enthusiasm about voting, which could bode well for McMaster, political observers say.

McMaster has a 14-point lead over Smith, according to the poll, released Thursday by the Atlanta-based Trafalgar Group.

Smith campaign spokesman Brad Warthen dismissed the poll, noting the firm at one point said there was a three-way tie in June’s Democratic primary for S.C. governor, which Smith won in a landslide. However, the polling group accurately predicted the GOP primary runoff, which McMaster won.

The Trafalgar poll was conducted mostly before Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing last Thursday. It surveyed 2,692 likely voters across the state via email, cellphone and land lines.

A little more than half of those surveyed — 50.7 percent — said they support McMaster, compared to 36.7 percent who said they support Smith. More than 12 percent of those surveyed were undecided.

McMaster did best in the Upstate, with men, and with voters age 65 or older. Smith won among voters ages 18 to 44, and performed stronger in the Lowcountry and Midlands but trailed McMaster in all regions of the state.

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.89 percentage points and a 95 percent confidence level.

“Polls go up and down, but leadership is steady, and that’s what (the governor) is focused on right now,” McMaster campaign spokeswoman Caroline Anderegg said.

Nationally, Republicans are seeing a spike in enthusiasm among GOP voters, who report they are more enthusiastic about voting in the midterm elections. An NPR-PBS-Marist poll shows the drama over Kavanaugh’s confirmation is helping Republicans close what had been their enthusiasm gap compared to Democrats.

“Nothing has motivated Republicans like” the Kavanaugh imbroglio, said pollster Robert C. Cahaly, senior strategist with the Trafalgar Group. “Democrats, their people, were already decided … to impact the election in a very strong way with their turnout. This has just leveled the field on enthusiasm. It’s just an intensity in both directions, and rightfully so. ... This isn’t just a Supreme Court seat. This is a swing seat.”

McMaster, a Trump ally, has backed Kavanaugh’s nomination.

Speaking at a Greenville County GOP forum Monday, the 71-year-old former U.S. attorney and S.C. attorney general told reporters he was waiting to see what the FBI turned up in its investigation into sexual assault claims against Kavanaugh.

Asked whether he would confirm Kavanaugh if he could, McMaster said: “He will be a superior member of the Supreme Court. He believes in the Constitution. ... The Supreme Court is not a place to make law. The Supreme Court is a place to interpret the law. That’s what the framers intended, and that’s what he understands. And we need to have him and more jurists like him — men and women — on the Supreme Court.”

Smith, 51, and his lieutenant governor-running mate, state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster, declined to comment on the Kavanaugh confirmation fight.

While the Kavanaugh allegations and hearings have riled the Republican base — who voted for Trump in part because of the opportunity to tilt the Supreme Court to the right — they also have fired up Democrats and independent women, said College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts.

“The confirmation hearings are awakening conservatives and reminding them there’s still a lot to fight for” in the midterm elections, Knotts said. “The impact of the Kavanaugh fight can matter at the margins, but I don’t see it being a game-changer. ... There’s a lot of people in South Carolina who still back Trump.”

The Trafalgar Group poll shows Trump with a 54 percent approval rate in the state.

Tom Barton: 803-771-8304, @tjbarton83
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