In more ways than one, South Carolina’s fall gubernatorial election will hinge on age. Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who nabbed a primary runoff victory in an election much closer than expected, is 71. His Democratic opponent, longtime state Rep. James Smith of Columbia, is a generation younger at age 50.
In the months ahead, expect to hear both talking about experienced leadership, but in different ways.
McMaster will focus on South Carolina’s general successes and how it’s smart to keep the state’s coach when the state has low unemployment. Smith, who will benefit from the bruising done to McMaster by four GOP primary opponents, will question whether the state as a whole is really doing as well for everyone. He’ll likely make a case that it is time to change the coach to try new solutions, not keep someone who has been fighting the same ideological battles for decades.
“It’s in McMaster’s best interest to get James to focus on individual issues,” observed former Democratic state Sen. Phil Leventis of Sumter. “It’s in James’ best interest to try to focus on basically the almost two-decade rule of [Mark] Sanford, [Nikki] Haley and now McMaster that resulted in no measurable progress for the vast majority of people in South Carolina.”
Leventis said it is easy for the incumbent to point to job-laden successes like Boeing and Volvo during the campaign.
“Those are great — we’re happy to have them — but those are the exceptions, not the norms,” Leventis noted, adding Republican leadership had not effectively dealt with the state’s huge challenges in education, health care, and poverty.
Another observer suggested Smith would try to appeal to younger and independent voters by focusing on a new generation of ethical leadership with experience to get things done by working across the aisle — and without getting as hung up on old-timey ideology.
But the election could boil down to something much simpler than age depending on what’s happening nationally. It could become a referendum on President Donald Trump. If Trump, the most Teflon of presidents, weathers continuing scandals like a duck repels water, then McMaster’s ongoing reminders of his close ties to the president might pay off. But if Trump starts sinking under the weight of a special counsel’s enduring probe into Russian fiddling with the 2016 elections, McMaster’s ties to the president could turn sour at the polls.
“There was no policy discussion of any legitimacy in the Republican primary,” said GOP observer Chip Felkel of Greenville, who thought the linchpin for the eventual winner rested with Trump’s fate. “It was all about kissing his ring. The Democrats seemed to be more interested in policy. ”
Felkel also said Trump’s tariffs on foreign goods could come home to roost by hurting South Carolina jobs.
“Trump’s policies are eventually going to affect South Carolina employment numbers when it comes to tariffs and the automotive and airline industries. I know Henry is Trump’s guy, but how is that helping South Carolina?”
Three other issues may drive voters in November:
Energy. McMaster and Smith agree a just-passed legislative rate cut for SCE&G ratepayers wasn’t enough because it continues to subsidize the failed V.C. Summer nuclear project. Smith may be able to capitalize on the issue by saying McMaster was part of the leadership that led to the debacle. Although Smith was a member of the legislature then, he was serving in the military in Afghanistan when the enabling legislation passed that caused the mess.
Corruption. A whiff of ongoing scandal still scents Columbia’s air. McMaster got beaten up in opponents’ ads in the primary that tied him to a campaign consultant he used for years who got caught in the investigation. This story line could validate Smith’s assertion that ethical leadership is needed and might appeal to anyone tired of good old boys in Columbia.
Health care. During the primary, Smith telegraphed that a big campaign theme would be access to affordable health care — something that eludes thousands of South Carolinians, in part, because the state’s GOP leaders refused to accept billions of dollars in federal money to expand Medicaid services. Recent ideological GOP attacks on abortion providers also could backfire.