Official Governor's Office Photo by Zach Pippin

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster is seeking reelection in 2022, but is expected to face strong opposition from Democrats and perhaps from his own Republican Party.

A lot of eyes are on Republican John Warren, an Upstate businessman and political newcomer who has not held elected office, but was able to secure a runoff four years ago against McMaster.

McMaster, then running for his first full term after ascending to the office when Gov. Nikki Haley left to become U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, won the primary runoff, but not by much. He received 54% of the vote.

The Republican field

Will Warren run again?

“He has not decided yet,” said a Warren spokesman.

Warren

Warren is the former owner of Lima One Capital, a successful mortgage finance company based in Greenville. In 2018, Warren ran against four other Republicans to get into the the runoff against McMaster by securing 27.8% of the vote, second to McMaster’s 42.3%. Other GOP candidates included then-current Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant of Anderson, former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill of Kingstree and former agency head Catherine Templeton of Mount Pleasant.

Last year, Warren started South Carolina’s Conservative Future, a political action committee to help financially boost Republican candidates. He also has used the group to urge the legislature to adopt stricter abortion measures and to elect conservative judges.

Warren recently launched a new initiative labeled “Accountability for Taxpayers” and delivered a slew of attacks on the current administration.

“We promised to expose problems created by the career politicians in Columbia – specifically wasteful spending and corruption,” he said in a post. “Unfortunately for the people of South Carolina, there are more examples than we could possibly count, but first up on the list: South Carolina’s 2021-2022 budget.”

Despite the state having a $1.7 billion surplus this year, taxpayers are getting nothing in tax relief, Warren said. Instead, “politicians have used our money to help themselves to a pork spending buffet.” Examples he listed include: $5 million for an opera house; $200,000 for a food and wine festival; $550,000 for an art park project; and $250,000 for a tennis center.

While Warren is the most talked-about potential GOP challenger for McMaster, legislative sources also point to possibilities that other candidates from the right might take on McMaster in the 2022 primary, including Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, Templeton or a right-wing activist affiliated with former President Donald Trump — particularly since the Greenville and Charleston county Republican parties are in disarray due to internal strife.

The Democratic field

Even if McMaster makes it unscathed through the GOP primary, three Democrats have already announced for the race, which could prove difficult for a state dominated by GOP voters.

No Democrat has been elected governor in South Carolina in more than 20 years. All statewide offices, most of the congressional delegation and majorities in both state legislative chambers are held by Republicans.

But two high-profile candidates say they are up for the challenge.

If elected, Sen. Mia McLeod, D-Columbia, would be the first African-American woman to hold the office in South Carolina, a feat that could turn out more Democratic voters.

McLeod | Provided

She was first elected to the state House in 2010 and then to the Senate in 2016. She servesDistrict 22, which includes parts of Kershaw and Richland counties.

McLeod didn’t mince words when she gave the Democrats’ response to McMaster’s 2021 State of the State address. She called McMaster’s effort to manage the state’s COVID-19 outbreak a “colossal failure.”

While Democrats have not had much success with the governor’s race over the last several years, McLeod said she is ready.

 “I’ve been fighting the status quo for 10 years, and I’m still fighting, taking on the fights no one else will, even when I fight alone.” McLeod told her supporters during her announcement.

Another Democratic fighter in the race is Joe Cunningham, a former congressman from Charleston who has already proven he can win election in a deep-red state.

Cunningham | Provided

In his 2018 run for Congress, he won a Republican seat held previously by former Gov. Mark Sanford. Cunningham is ignoring naysayers who say a Democrat can’t win a statewide race.

“We’ve heard that before,” Cunningham said in his announcement.”In 2018, thanks to many of you, I flipped a congressional district that had not voted for a Democrat in 40 years. The district that Donald Trump won by 13 percentage points, on election night in 2018, the experts gave us a 9%, not 90% chance at winning. But we won then and we’re going to do it again.”

But two years later, with the help of the presidential election in November 2020, former state GOP Rep. Nancy Mace of Daniel Island, defeated Cunningham to win the seat back for Republicans by fewer than 6,000 votes.

 Democratic activist Gary Votour of Columbia, who describes himself as a health care and social justice activist, has also entered the race. He is relatively unknown in South Carolina politics.

McMaster’s campaign

McMaster won his first full term, defeating Democratic challenger James Smith by about 8 percentage points.

McMaster’s website boasts about a strong and vibrant South Carolina economy under his leadership, with 45,000 new jobs and more than $13.5 billion in new capital investment in the state.

McMaster says the state has made transformative investments in the classroom by expanding full day 4-year-old kindergarten, raising K-12 teacher pay and placing a school resource officer in every school. He says colleges and universities are becoming more accessible and affordable due to his tuition freeze and by his doubling of funding for needs-based financial aid for in-state students.

Al Dozier is a veteran South Carolina reporter who lives in Columbia. This story was originally published in City Paper‘s sister publication, Statehouse Report.