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Voters weigh heft of Trump backing in South Carolina primary

June 12, 2018
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South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, left, speaks while his running mate Pamela Evette listens during a campaign stop in Aiken, SC., Thursday, June 7, 2018. Elevated to the state’s top job last year, McMaster is facing four challengers in Tuesday’s Republican primary. (Michael Holahan/The Augusta Chronicle via AP)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina voters are getting their chance to weigh in as voting began Tuesday for the state’s primary elections, with a hotly contested governor’s race at the top of the ticket.

The Republican primary vote is a test for the heft of the endorsement of President Donald Trump , who is backing Gov. Henry McMaster.

And in a surprise less than three hours before polls close, Trump himself weighed in , asking voters in the coastal 1st Congressional District to boot U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford out.

Over the weekend, Trump also used Twitter to back McMaster, who as lieutenant governor was the nation’s first statewide elected official to announce his support for Trump ahead of South Carolina’s early presidential primary. When he took office, Trump selected then-Gov. Nikki Haley as his U.N. Ambassador, allowing McMaster to ascend to the state’s top job.

Now, McMaster — who finished third behind Haley in a four-way GOP governor primary in 2010 — is running for a full term on his own merit. For the past year and a half, he’s been able to develop the mantle of an incumbent, tallying up economic-development announcements and championing issues aligned with the president’s priorities, such as clamping down on “sanctuary cities” and restricting funding for groups affiliated with abortions. South Carolina has no “sanctuary cities.”

In that pursuit he’s drawn four GOP challengers, including Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant and Yancey McGill, a former Democratic state senator who briefly served as lieutenant governor.

But the race’s two other candidates have both positioned themselves as outsiders, banking on voters’ desire to elect political newcomers. Catherine Templeton twice served in Haley’s administration but has never pursued elected office. John Warren, a Marine and businessman from Greenville, is new to politics entirely. Templeton has essentially matched McMaster in fundraising, while Warren has contributed more than $3 million toward his own effort.

On the Democratic side, voters also face a choice between political experience and newcomer perspective. Afghanistan veteran and longtime state Rep. James Smith is the front-runner, spending 22 years in the South Carolina House before stepping aside for a run for governor. Charleston consultant Phil Noble has proposed “big, bold and audacious ideas” for South Carolina, including doubling teacher pay while putting strict accountably goals in place to weed out poor teachers.

Florence attorney Marguerite Willis, who has said she was driven into the race by “the racist, sexist president of the United States,” has argued that a woman is needed to take on the good-old-boy network and fight for better lives for women and the poor.

The surprise of the day came just after 4 p.m. when Trump’s official Twitter account posted a message endorsing state Rep. Kati e Arrington over Sanford.

“Mark Sanford has been very unhelpful to me in my campaign to MAGA. He is MIA and nothing but trouble. He is better off in Argentina,” the president wrote, referring to Sanford’s 2009 trip to South America to have an affair when his staff said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.

“I fully endorse Katie Arrington for Congress in SC, a state I love. She is tough on crime and will continue our fight to lower taxes. VOTE Katie!” Trump wrote.

Turnout was generally light, a state election commission spokesman said early Tuesday afternoon.

There were exceptions in Cherokee and Darlington counties, where sharply contested local races had somewhat heavier turnout, Chris Whitmire with the election commission said.

South Carolina’s primary turnout usually ranges from 13 percent to 27 percent, he said.

There are also primaries in some of South Carolina’s seven congressional districts. U.S. Rep. Tom Rice faces a Republican challenger along with Sanford. Two Republican statewide officeholders, Attorney General Alan Wilson and Secretary of State Mark Hammond, also face primary challengers.

Voting started at 7 a.m. and a few precincts had problems with power outages left over from Monday night storms, but that did not affect voting and the problems were quickly resolved, Whitmire said.

Polls are scheduled to close at 7 p.m. Tuesday. In races where candidates don’t secure more than 50 percent of votes cast, runoff elections of the top two vote-getters will be held June 26.

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