McLeod announced her bid for governor in Columbia on Thursday | via McLeod for S.C. Facebook

State Sen. Mia McLeod has already made South Carolina history by becoming the first Black woman to run for governor. But in a state where Democrats have lost the last five elections for the governor’s mansion, could McLeod flip the script?

GOP Gov. Henry McMaster will appear on ballots again in 2022 — his eighth run in 36 years for statewide office — but the Democratic field from which his opponent will be chosen is wide open for now. McLeod’s announcement Thursday made her the third candidate to enter the race. Activist Gary Votour and former U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham have also announced campaigns.

On top of 10 years of experience in the state legislature three terms in the House and her current tenure in the state Senate, McLeod, a Bennettsville native who lives in the Columbia area, brings a shift compared to previous Democratic prospects, said S.C. Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston.

Kimpson | City Paper file photo

“Instead of Vincent, Vincent, James and Joe, we’re about to witness Mia. That contrast alone is different. Not only in name, but also policy proposals,” he said.

“In the past, we’ve had conservative Democrats spending a whole lot of time and energy pandering to voters who have historically not supported the Democratic nominee in the general. The difference here is I think Mia will, first and foremost, represent the interests of the heart of the party.”

Cunningham is also a “well-qualified” and “exciting” candidate, Kimpson said, but he will let the candidates make their cases before endorsing.

In a statement Thursday, Cunningham said, “Mia brings an important voice to this race and I look forward to spending time with her on the trail as we make our case to voters.”

McLeod has been a vocal critic of McMaster and Republican legislators who have maintained a stranglehold on state government for years. Last year, she criticized leaders’ return to Columbia to debate voting laws following early COVID-related shutdowns, citing her own bouts with sickle cell anemia. During debate over restrictive anti-abortion laws, McLeod spoke in front of her colleagues, revealing she had been the victim of sexual assault.

“With over 7,000 deaths in South Carolina from this deadly virus in less than a year, Henry McMaster’s claims of being ‘pro life’ ring hollow,” she said in a Feb. 16 email to supporters.

“I believe in a South Carolina where the governor has the courage to lead, the compassion to feel empathy for others, a connection to the people she represents, the character to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing, and the conviction to stand, even if she has to stand alone,” she said in her announcement Thursday.

Willis | Photo via C-SPAN

Criticisms of McMaster will likely be plentiful from all candidates, said Marguerite Willis, a Florence attorney who previously ran for governor in 2018 and has not ruled out a run in 2022.

“What we have different this time, is you have four years of experience to shoot it with regard to Henry McMaster,” she said. “There’s so much to pick apart, with regard to his performance, that whoever does the best job of that should be a successful candidate.”

Whoever the nominee is, Kimpson said, they can’t just be in the race for a feel-good discussion of the issues or to put up a good fight.

“I don’t believe we move the needle by sending a message. We need to win.”