This year’s SC gov primary stirs up memories of 2010 contest

June 8, 2018
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Republicans Catherine Templeton, left, Gov. Henry McMaster, center, and John Warren participate in a gubernatorial primary debate at the University of South Carolina, Tuesday June 5, 2018 in Columbia, S.C.. (Grace Beahm Alford/The Post And Courier via AP)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Gov. Henry McMaster has led his individual competitors in recent polls, but with just a few days left until South Carolina’s Republican gubernatorial primary he lags behind them collectively and falls well below the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.

Former state agency head Catherine Templeton has kept pace with McMaster’s fundraising throughout the race, but political newcomer John Warren has been surging, as he and Templeton now battle it out for a slot in the expected runoff.

Yet those who recall the 2010 gubernatorial contest in this rough-and-tumble political state know not to count out candidates who are further behind and perhaps not as well-known. Anyone who doubts that need only remember one name: Nikki Haley.

Haley was considered a longshot candidate when she mounted her campaign for the 2010 GOP gubernatorial nomination. The field then was large, as it is this year, filled with experienced politicians whose bids had long been expected. They included Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett and McMaster, then coming off two terms as the state’s attorney general. Haley, serving her third term as a Lexington legislator, wasn’t well-known statewide.

But Haley was the pick of Mark Sanford — at the time disgraced by the revelation of an extramarital affair yet still respected for his fiscal conservatism. Sanford’s jilted wife, Jenny Sanford — herself highly respected in South Carolina’s political circles — also backed Haley. And Haley racked up other endorsements, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose backing secured Haley’s status as a tea party-anointed candidate.

Haley nearly won the four-way primary contest outright, taking 49 percent of the vote to Barrett’s 22 percent, McMaster and Bauer finishing a distant third and fourth. Two weeks later, Haley cruised to the nomination, with 65 percent of votes cast.

Going into next Tuesday’s GOP primary, voters are again being asked to weigh experience versus fresh perspective. McMaster, well-known for decades, was a U.S. Attorney in the Reagan administration and headed the state’s GOP before his stint as attorney general. He’s backed by President Donald Trump, whom he supported early in the 2016 presidential race and has featured prominently in his ads. Templeton has never served in elected office but spent four years serving two posts in Haley’s administration.

But Warren, a Marine and businessman who started a mortgage business in Greenville, has no political experience. Since entering the race in February, he’s surged in the polls after spending millions on television advertising, spots that proclaim his military experience, pro-business attitudes and opposition to abortion. An April Target Insyght survey marked him at 1 percent among registered voters, but Warren has climbed to 20 percent in a more recent version of the poll last month.

Warren’s internal numbers have shown him ahead of Templeton, 19 percent to 17 percent. He’s rolled out dozens of endorsements, getting backing this week from members of his “Pro-Life Coalition” as well as Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame, who says in a campaign video: “Men who love God and who love you. That’s John Warren.”

Warren has invested millions of his own dollars into his campaign and could add much more. Asked if Warren could be the come-from-behind candidate that Haley was in 2010, College of Charleston political scientist Gibbes Knotts says no candidate can be counted out in the post-2010 electoral world.

“There’s always going to be, in the modern Republican party, an anti-establishment, outsider streak that really exists everywhere in the country, and certainly South Carolina is no exception,” Knotts said.

Both McMaster and Templeton have run hard on ties to Trump, who courted Templeton for an administration post, but Knotts said it may be Warren’s business acumen that’s key for him. He’s backed by dozens of state business leaders, and his running mate is retired Charleston developer and State Ports Authority Chairman Pat McKinney.

“For primary voters, Trump’s time in Washington probably helps John Warren because the vast majority of primary voters are favorable toward Donald Trump and see him as somebody who has been a real success.”


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