Gov. Henry McMaster knows what it’s all about to run a statewide political race. He’s been successful in elections for attorney general and lieutenant governor. He’s failed in running for governor.
McMaster is hoping to make amends for the last beginning this June in a Republican primary that features four others: Mount Pleasant attorney Catherine Templeton, Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill and Greenville businessman John Warren.
While pundits see McMaster as the clear favorite to win the GOP nomination for a full term, history tells the governor that things can go badly wrong. Back in 2010, all the focus in the GOP primary race was on McMaster, U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett and Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer in a four-way GOP primary battle. A little-known Lexington representative stepped up to lead the primary race and defeat Barrett in a runoff. The rest is history for Nikki Haley, whose departure to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations led to McMaster becoming governor in 2017.
The polls give McMaster reason for optimism but not overconfidence.
In the most recent Winthrop Poll released in February, McMaster’s approval rating stayed steady at 47 percent. However, his disapproval rating and those who aren’t sure of him both stand at 25 percent.
Poll Director Dr. Scott Huffmon said, “Gov. McMaster’s approval numbers are nearly double his disapproval numbers, so he is definitely ‘above water.’ But having one quarter of respondents not feeling they can evaluate his performance means he must get out in front of the average resident and put his stamp on the office. While general population results such as these cannot be used to predict electoral outcomes like a poll of likely voters could, we can say that the governor needs to make sure his message and performance are seen by more South Carolinians before November.”
But first he has to get to the general election.
Results from a poll by Save the Children Action Network and as reported by The State newspaper of Columbia show McMaster leading the GOP primary field with 41 percent. Templeton is at 10 percent with others in single digits. The number of undecideds stands at 35 percent.
While McMaster would seemingly feel safe in securing at least some of the undecideds, the key is to top the 50 percent mark. If a challenger such as Templeton makes it into a runoff, all bets are off.
Hence the governor’s increasing high profile and attempts to brand himself, in particular by reminding GOP voters that he was the first statewide elected official in the nation to endorse President Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, comparatively little attention is being paid to the Democratic field that features Columbia State Rep. James Smith, Charleston businessman Phil Noble and Florence attorney Marguerite Willis.
In the same Children Action Network poll, Smith got 18 percent while Willis was at 11 and Noble was at 7 percent. A whopping 57 percent of Democrats are undecided.
Conventional thinking is they will come around to Smith, who is building an impressive resume of endorsements including Congressman Jim Clyburn, former Vice President Joe Biden, and former Govs. Dick Riley and Jim Hodges.
Considering that the state has no Democrat holding statewide office and has not had a Democratic governor since Hodges was elected in 1998, the winner will have a big mountain to climb in a solidly GOP state. But even in South Carolina, the dynamics of the political landscape by November are hard to forecast.
Former S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Don Fowler told The State that Smith has the best chance of winning the governorship since Hodges. But considering that the GOP field of candidates has outraised Smith in campaign finance by more than 10 to 1, the Democrats are going to need more South Carolinians to buy into their chances and convince national Democrats that the race is wide open enough to prompt investment.
That likely means allowing the primary to play out with Smith being the expected winner. Then would come an assessment of McMaster’s vulnerability. That is, of course, if McMaster is the nominee. Should someone in the GOP field elevate enough to knock him off, it’s hard to see that candidate losing in a general election.