CROWDED (GOP) HOUSE …
The 2018 “Republican” governor’s race in South Carolina has been one wild and crazy ride … and it isn’t even 2018 yet.
First there was a crowded field. Then it became a one-person race. Now the field is getting crowded once again.
Where will this race take us next? Who knows … but as the basic outlines of this contest come into focus, it’s time for us to start injecting our venerable political acumen into the equation.
First, some context: Governors in South Carolina have very little power beyond the bully pulpit (a.k.a. the public attention they can summon and direct toward specific issues) and their veto pen. Real power in the Palmetto State – including most executive power – is wielded by a cadre of legislative leaders.
It’s all part of an antiquated structure that has its roots in the state’s 1895 constitution, which we’ve repeatedly argued is in desperate need of an upgrade.
The governor can fight against this structure all he or she wants (or not) … but until it changes there is very little hope of anything else changing in the Palmetto State (economically, academically or in regards to infrastructure, public safety or other core functions of government).
South Carolina governors are also limited to two terms in office, and when this race began it was generally presumed that a host of well-known GOP contenders would be vying to replace outgoing two-term governor Nikki Haley.
Several things transpired to upend this calculus, though … the most significant of them being the shocking November upset that installed Donald Trump in the White House.
Trump’s victory resulted in Haley being appointed to a plum post in Washington, D.C. – not because the new president wanted her there necessarily, but because then-S.C. lieutenant governor Henry McMaster coveted Haley’s office and wanted her moved out of his way.
McMaster – one of the only establishment “Republicans” in South Carolina to endorse Trump’s presidential bid – was desperate to become governor, and Trump’s appointment of Haley as ambassador to the United Nations granted him his wish.
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(Via: S.C. Governor’s Office)
RACE ON LOCKDOWN …
The ascension of McMaster (above) to the governor’s mansion in January effectively shut down the 2018 GOP primary. Most assumed that the 70-year-old politician – having been imbued with the power of incumbency – would cruise to victory in next year’s election. And perhaps beyond that …
Things haven’t worked out that way, though.
McMaster has seen his guaranteed reelection go by the boards thanks to a combination of factors – chief among them an ongoing investigation into public corruption in state government. This probe – led by S.C. first circuit solicitor David Pascoe – has drawn a bead on several of McMaster’s longtime political allies.
The new governor has thus far managed to avoid being directly implicated in connection with this scandal, but there’s no denying he’s been tainted by it.
Second, McMaster has stumbled as chief executive – especially when it comes to protecting taxpayers.
In late April, he signed a massive $826 million annual tax hike to bail out the state’s woefully mismanaged pension fund. Last month, he issued budget vetoes that were so unsubstantial lawmakers didn’t even bother to address them. Even his much ballyhooed rebuke of an unnecessary gas tax hike appears to have been nothing but a carefully choreographed insider charade.
McMaster has also seemed aloof/ paralyzed in responding to serious issues within his cabinet – including major scandals at the S.C. Department of Public Safety (SCDPS) and the S.C. Department of Corrections (SCDC).
McMaster’s biggest problem, though, is not of his own making … it’s the credibility of his top rival.
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THE “IT” GIRL …
To say that Lowcountry labor attorney and former Haley appointee Catherine Templeton (above) has exceeded expectations in every way since entering the governor’s race officially last November would be a grossly unfair statement to apply to her.
What she’s managed to accomplish is far bigger than that …
For a first-time candidate going up against an incumbent governor in his own party’s primary election, that’s unheard of … although we have long told our readers to prepare for the time when Templeton would be a force on the statewide stage.
That time is clearly now at hand …
Like Trump’s surprise election and the ongoing anti-corruption investigation, Templeton’s fundraising prowess has fundamentally altered the dynamic of this election – forcing McMaster to attack her in an effort to blunt her momentum.
“How desperate to do Henry’s folks look attacking Catherine?” one former SCGOP official asked us, rhetorically.
Short answer? Very.
Are McMaster’s broadsides working? We’ll see … but Templeton has proven by way of response that she’s not afraid of a political scrape. At all. And the fact that an incumbent governor has been forced to go on the offensive this early against a still largely unknown challenger bodes exceedingly well for Templeton’s campaign moving forward.
“At this point it’s all free press for her,” one political consultant unaffiliated with the race told us. “By attacking her he is putting her face in the paper every day. A year from now no one is going to remember what was said – but they will remember her name and her face.”
Also let’s not forget, McMaster’s aides are attacking Templeton on ground where he is perhaps even more vulnerable than she is – which could pose real problems for him down the road (especially if other candidates enter the race).
Which reminds us …
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OTHER CHALLENGERS …
Templeton isn’t McMaster’s only problem as the 2018 race begins to take concrete form. The vulnerabilities he has displayed during his first six months in office have drawn the attention of at least two other credible challengers: S.C. lieutenant governor Kevin Bryant (above) and State Senator Tom Davis.
Assuming they both jump into the fray – which at this point appears more likely than not – we would be looking at a five-way free-for-all (like McMaster and Templeton, former S.C. lieutenant governor Yancey McGill is already an announced candidate).
Other candidates – including former S.C. commerce secretary Joe Taylor – could also decide to run, although at this point (to borrow a lyric from Bob Dylan) “the hour is getting late.” Anyone deciding to take the plunge at this point had better have access to an impressive fundraising network – or be able to stroke their own checks.
How would a five-way race involving McMaster, Templeton, Davis, Bryant and McGill shake out?
Despite his stumbles, McMaster would remain the clear frontrunner. He’s still the incumbent, and he still has a “Trump” card to play that the other GOP candidates don’t. But seeing as Trump’s gift-wrapped incumbency and all the special interest support that came with it failed to clear the field for McMaster, can his endorsement really be expected to carry the day for him?
Especially if Trump continues to stumble?
Also, all of this calculus assumes McMaster is able to emerge unscathed from the allegations swirling around his longtime political advisor, Richard Quinn. Any elevated exposure to that investigation could make him too radioactive for Trump to touch.
Either way, McMaster is facing some difficult electoral math.
If Bryant runs, his candidacy would be a boon to social conservatives – and could potentially take votes away from the incumbent in the vote-rich, evangelical strongholds of the Palmetto Upstate.
In fact, one McMaster ally told us this week they believed Bryant’s nascent campaign was all about him “posturing in an effort to get McMaster to name him as his lieutenant governor.”
“He’s playing a game way over his head,” the McMaster backer told us.
Perhaps … but there’s no doubt a Bryant candidacy has the potential to hurt McMaster far more than it would hurt Templeton.
Then there is Davis – whose presumptive candidacy this website has preemptively endorsed. A staunch taxpayer advocate, the third-term Senator from Beaufort, S.C. has gained significant statewide grassroots support in the aftermath of his battle against recent tax hikes. Beyond that, Davis is likely to draw from the national network he cultivated following his high-profile “First in the South” presidential endorsements of former congressman Ron Paul in 2012 and U.S. Senator Rand Paul in 2016.
Also, libertarian-leaning GOP voters in South Carolina are likely to be further inclined to support Davis given his advocacy on the issue of medical marijuana – which has the potential to attract new voters in droves to this election.
Bottom line? This race is wide open …
My choice for the 2018 GOP gubernatorial race is ...
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Banner via S.C. Governor’s Office