Where the SC Governor's Race Stands A Year Away from Election Day

To understand the 2018 governor’s race, rewind a year to the election of President Donald Trump.

Trump’s win moved up South Carolina’s gubernatorial race calendar, when shortly after he won, he named then Gov. Nikki Haley to become his United Nations ambassador.

Moments after a near unanimous Senate vote in January, Haley resigned her office to second-in-command Henry McMaster. The move instantly gave McMaster greater name recognition and a modern track record to run on.

McMaster, 70, is already well-known in state politics. He served as U.S. attorney—appointed by President Ronald Reagan—two terms as the state’s attorney general and, until January, was lieutenant governor for two years. The South Carolina native was also chairman of the state Republican Party from 1993-2002.

He made unsuccessful bids for the U.S. Senate in 1986 and governor in 2010.

But in early 2016 did something no other statewide elected official in the country had done. He endorsed Donald Trump.

The move came weeks before South Carolina’s First in the South primary and has since paid dividends after Trump won the state and the election.

McMaster continues to receive Trump support—a key to helping woo Trump’s more conservative supporters, who are critical for the June Republican primary. McMaster gave Trump’s nominating speech at the national convention last year, he’s met with him multiple times in Washington, appeared with him at the Boeing plant in North Charleston, and recently hosted him for a fundraiser in the Upstate.

During the legislative session, McMaster took a more cordial approach to working with legislators than his predecessor, even when it came to the roads funding bill that included a 12-cent increase to the state’s gas tax. He vetoed the bill, but lawmakers had enough votes to overturn it and pass it into law.

Despite the quixotic effort, the gas tax increase is a distant memory to current issues, such as the $9 billion V.C. Summer nuclear project boondoggle and the ongoing State House corruption investigation, which has now ensnared McMaster’s former, long-time political consultant Richard Quinn.

“I know as others do that when investigations are going on, you have to just let them run their course,” McMaster said. “That’s what is happening here. It’s been a lengthy investigation and we have to just let it run its course.”

Catherine Templeton has emerged as McMaster’s biggest threat to retaining the office, as evidenced by her besting him in the most recent fundraising.

Templeton, a lawyer, headed labor and environmental agencies under Haley. Since entering the race in early April, Templeton has branded herself as a Trump-like outsider who’s never run for office, is beholden to no one, and is fed up with corruption.

She grabbed headlines in August, following a Pickens County Republican Party event where she said she was proud of the Confederacy, but didn’t want to weigh in on lawmakers’ 2015 decision to remove the Confederate battle flag from State House grounds.

“I’ve already said, and mean it from the bottom of my heart, that I am proud to be from South Carolina, I’m proud of the Confederacy,” Templeton said. “But I’m not going to second-guess what the people in the State House did when I wasn’t there.”

She added that she would not support the removal of Confederate monuments and statues. The Heritage Act of 2000 prevents changes to monuments on public grounds without the approval of two-thirds of the legislature.

Templeton has surprised politicos with her staying power in the fundraising game—thanks to Haley allies—and her increasing public profile defined by her attacks against the old boys' club. She’s raised over $2 million, just shy of McMaster’s $2.3 million haul.

Templeton, 46, is married and a mother of three who lives in Mount Pleasant.

She recently rolled out an ethics platform calling for state lawmaker term limits, a ban on executive branch employees from lobbying, and announcing that she would not take the $106,078 paycheck if she is elected to office.

During the announcement, she even knocked McMaster and Trump’s endorsement of the governor, despite understanding the reciprocal nature of the situation.

"While I very much support and am appreciative of the loyalty that President Trump has for a politician who endorsed him, Henry ain't Trump," Templeton said.

College of Charleston Professor Gibbs Knotts said McMaster and Templeton have emerged as front-runners in the Republican field of four.

“Obviously, this is a state where Trump is still fairly popular with Republican primary voters, so you got to be pretty supportive of Trump,” Knotts said. “It’s going to be about getting your name out there and building your organization and two of the candidates, Templeton and McMaster, have emerged as the fundraising leaders and the people who at least have the resources to amount really, really competitive campaigns.”

Current Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant—a pharmacist who served three terms in the state Senate before filling in for McMaster’s vacant lieutenant governor seat, and former long-serving Kingstree Sen. Yancey McGill who spent 26 years in the Senate as a Democrat and lieutenant governor for several months in 2014, when Glenn McConnell resigned.

While McMaster hasn’t held a formal campaign announcement nor done much official campaigning, he maintains a busy public schedule of appearances and speeches—as well as private fundraisers.

The Democrats became active in the race just last month, when Columbia Rep. James Smith made his formal announcement. Days later, Charleston consultant Phil Noble entered the race.

Smith, 50, is a lawyer, married with four children and has served in the State House for 20 years. He’s a major in the S.C. National Guard and spent a year in Afghanistan in 2007 to 2008. His military experience has emerged as a major theme of his campaign.

“And while in Afghanistan to support Operation Enduring Freedom, it was the greatest honor and absolute privilege of my life to lead American soldiers in combat,” Smith said.  

Smith also echoed the need to clean up corruption in Columbia by trying to become the first Democrat to be in the governor’s mansion since Jim Hodges was defeated in 2002. 

Phil Noble has started several nonprofits and unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor in 1994.

The two will also face off in the June primary. Professor Knotts says that while Democrats historically have a good shot to take offices back during the first midterm elections of a new president, demographics of the solid Republican Palmetto State aren’t likely to change for a Democrat next November.

“I do think it’s a huge uphill battle for Democrats to win statewide in South Carolina right now,” It’s been a while since a Democrat won statewide, so its going to have to be somebody who is a moderate Democrat.”

While the 2018 gubernatorial field is filling out, there is still plenty of time for other candidates to jump in. However, history shows that candidates need to raise and spend upwards of $4 million to wage such campaigns.