Hurricane Florence could cause a lot of damage in South Carolina. It also could hurt the state’s top politician.
The fall campaign for governor barely had started when Hurricane Florence caused both candidates to suspend their campaigns Monday.
For incumbent Gov. Henry McMaster, the Columbia Republican who has taken a high-profile role in overseeing the state’s response to Florence, the hurricane comes with big risks and, potentially, big rewards.
“A really good storm response with decisive results shows leadership, boosts name ID, competence — all the things you want to get out about your candidate — for free,” said Katon Dawson, former chairman of the S.C. Republican Party.
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Meanwhile, Florence sidelined James Smith, the Democratic candidate for governor. After suspending his campaign, the Columbia state representative was called up for service in the S.C. National Guard.
“His responsibility now is to perform his duty as a major in the National Guard,” said Charles Bierbauer, dean emeritus of the communications school at the University of South Carolina. “The advantage really does lie with the incumbent.”
As Florence approached, McMaster held daily televised briefings on the state’s storm preparations from the headquarters of the Emergency Management Division, starting almost a week before the hurricane made landfall Friday near Wilmington, N.C.
The governor issued an evacuation order effective Tuesday and reversed lanes on Interstate 26 — so that all lanes flowed away from the coast — until Thursday evening to help coastal residents get out of harm’s way faster.
Hurricanes — and the state’s response to them — can make or break a governor.
In 2000, Gov. Jim Hodges was criticized for the state’s handling of evacuations for Hurricane Floyd, when traffic slowed to a standstill on Interstate 26.
Two years later, when Hodges lost his re-election bid to Mark Sanford, “we found that people remembered the backlog, they remembered the children born on the interstate,” Dawson said.
In contrast, Gov. Nikki Haley received positive reviews for her handling of major weather events in 2015 and 2016, boosting her national profile.
“Nikki Haley certainly benefited from her response,” said Furman University political scientist Danielle Vinson. “She came across as being in command.
“McMaster has not been as entertaining, but he can still benefit.”
Some think the lessons of hurricanes past may have played into the McMaster administration’s decision to spring into action days before Florence reached the coast.
“We overreacted to the Nth degree, closing counties and schools from Tuesday on,” Don Fowler, former chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee, said Friday. “There was not a single day from Tuesday through (Friday) that the university (of South Carolina) could not have been open.
“I’m sure politics was a major factor in their thinking, however much they might deny it,” Fowler said.
After McMaster initially signaled on Monday that an evacuation of the entire S.C. coast was coming, the governor removed three counties — Hilton Head’s Beaufort, Colleton and Jasper — from the evacuation list before residents were supposed to leave at noon Tuesday.
“I know people in Beaufort were a little miffed,” Furman’s Vinson said. “But I’m not sure that will linger too long.”
Controversy also erupted after the state Department of Corrections said it would not evacuate some 650 inmates from MacDougall Correctional Institution in Dorchester County, sparking protests by activists who said prisoners’ lives were being put in danger.
Prison officials also did not plan to evacuate Ridgeland Correctional Institution in Jasper County before the evacuation order for that county was lifted.
McMaster argued the prisoners would be better protected and cared for if they rode out the storm where they were.
Vinson said the controversy, especially if lives are endangered in the Lowcountry prisons, could motivate some voters to support Smith in November.
“It fits the storyline with the prisons after the deaths earlier this year” at Lee Correctional in Bishopville, where seven inmates died in a lengthy prison riot that later sparked an inmate hunger strike, Vinson said.
But overall, voters may be willing to give McMaster the benefit of the doubt in the face of an uncertain path for what was once a Category 4 hurricane.
“It’s better to err on the side of caution than to wait too late,” USC’s Bierbauer said.
As for Smith, who started the week announcing plans Monday for a new state veterans affairs agency, the hurricane won’t necessarily stall his momentum if he wants to bring up his National Guard service during the hurricane.
“That doesn’t hurt him,” Vinson said. “He can talk on the campaign trail about what he saw and did, and how he connected with the people of South Carolina.”
Editor’s Note: This story’s headline has been updated