The full interview with Professor Gibbs Knotts, College of Charleston political science department chair, on the state of the 2018 South Carolina governor’s race.
Catch up on who the candidates are and where the race stands a year away from Election Day here.
What does the 2018 election look like now that we’re a year away?
It’s over a year until the general election and there’s a lot of activity, there’s a lot of buzz, and there’s some excitement on the Democratic and the Republican side. I do think Democrats have an uphill battle here in South Carolina, but they’re running in a good year. I think it’s probably going to be a good year for Democrats in 2014 [sic], in part because of the controversy with the Trump administration, but in part, just because first-term presidents typically lose seats and struggle in that mid-term election. Mostly it’s talked about when it comes to the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate. Expect Democrats to pick up seats in the House and Senate nationally, but there could be an effect in South Carolina.
Say whether it’s James Smith or Phil Noble or some other Democrat who comes out of the woodworks. They’re running in a good year. It’s always tough in South Carolina for a Democrat, but I do think that 2018 could be a good year for Democrats nationally.
Who do you see leading the pack so far?
And it’s going to be about getting your name out and building your organization. And really two of the candidates, both Templeton and McMaster have emerged as the fundraising leaders and the people who at least have the resources to mount really, really competitive campaigns.
It doesn’t mean someone else couldn’t win, it’s just that those are the two right now it looks like it’s going to be between on the Republican side.
So, Templeton is McMaster’s biggest threat?
I think it speaks to the connections that she has and kind of how she’s perceived across the state, and some of the partnerships she’s tried to build. She certainly is well-connected and plugged into a lot of things going on in the state of South Carolina, even though she’s not a long-time legislator or something like that. It certainty is a unique situation and he’s a formidable candidate. She’s form the Lowcountry, McMaster is from the middle part of the state, but to the extent that she can really draw on support from this part of the state (Charleston), a part of the state where a lot of people live, I think that’s going to be a big advantage for her.
It definitely gets their (McMaster campaign’s) attention and it means they’re going to run ads introducing herself to voters because she has not won statewide. I think she does need to get her name out more in the middle part of the state and Upstate.
It’s a huge advantage for McMaster to be the incumbent. He can take the bully pulpit, he can sort of point to some of his accomplishments while in office, but I do think he’s going to have his work cut out for him, not only with Templeton but being in a crowded field, people get split up. It’s hard to win outright and then you can get into a runoff—you don't want to be in a runoff as the governor. It’s going to be a really, really exciting dynamic.
Can a Democrat become governor in South Carolina in 2018?
It’s a huge uphill battle for Democrats to win statewide in South Carolina right now. It’s been a while since a Democrat has won statewide, and so it’s going to have to be somebody who’s a moderate Democrat, who is going to be somebody who probably talks about the role of government, perhaps in education, or in building roads or attracting businesses. But it can’t be a Democrat in the spirit of Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer or some other kind of national Democrat. I think that would be a real mistake in South Carolina.
It’s got to be somebody who’s a moderate who can say, ‘Look, Republicans have had their chance. There’s been a lot of problems in the legislature, there’s been a lot of ethical challenges and it’s time to have another voice.’ And somebody who can work with Republicans, because even if a Democrat were to win the governorship, it would be likely Republicans would still control the state legislature.
What’s the difference between primary voters and general election voters?
The primary electorate on the Republican side is further to the right, so they've got to make sure that they are able to build enough support to get into a runoff. Then if they get into a runoff, be able to beat whoever they’re in a runoff with.
For the Democratic primary, it’s really important to think about the role of African Americans; they make up the majority of Democratic primary voters. Whether it’s Noble or Smith or some other candidate, they've got to make sure they do well in the African American community and speak to issues and concerns of the African American community. You saw that with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, of course, it was a presidential election, but Sanders did not have the appeal among African Americans in South Carolina and he got blown out by Hillary Clinton, who had long-standing ties in the African American community.
What role does President Donald Trump play in the race?
Obviously, this is a state where Trump is still fairly popular; he’s particularly popular with Republican primary voters, and so you have to be pretty supportive of Trump, certainly not critical of any of Trump’s actions.
McMaster was for Trump early on, was in a position as lieutenant governor, so he held statewide elected office—that means a lot to Trump. But it is an interesting dynamic because McMaster is the ultimate insider. He’s been in South Carolina politics for a realty long time. That can be a problem, particularly in 2018 with the continuing investigation that’s going on in Columbia.
It will be interesting to see how much Trump comes back and participates in the campaign; you know, he’s done a fundraiser already.
How much will the ongoing State House corruption investigation influence the election?
It seems like a new person is either being indicted or resigning almost weekly. So, somebody like Templeton who says, ‘I’ve run a statewide office, but I’ve never been elected, I’ve never been a part of that system, I’m more part of the Haley wing of the Republican Party,’ that can be a really, really effective strategy. You saw that with Nikki Haley both in 2010 and 2014. And certainly, I think Catherine Templeton is going to be taking some plays from the Nikki Haley playbook when she runs in 2018 so.
We had Operation Lost Trust several decades ago, but this has been a huge issue. It’s really impacted the Lowcountry here with (former House Speaker) Bobby Harrell and (former Rep.) Jim Merrill. You know we had this delegation that had very large influence in the legislature, and now it’s a lot of new people who are out. The legislature in South Carolina was never super high on people's list of approval ratings, but I think it’s really shaken a lot of trust in what’s going on and a lot of confidence in Columbia. So, something needs to be done and part of the way voters can send a message is through the 2018 governor’s race.