Gov. Henry McMaster at the Statehouse in February. Gerry Melendez gmelendez@thestate.com
Gov. Henry McMaster at the Statehouse in February. Gerry Melendez gmelendez@thestate.com

Elections

Who is running for S.C. governor? McMaster, Templeton, McGill and almost no one else

By Jamie Self and Avery G. Wilks

jself@thestate.com; awilks@thestate.com

June 07, 2017 09:01 PM

With only a year until S.C. Democrats and Republicans choose who they want to be their next governor, the field of candidates is thin and red.

On the GOP side, former state labor and health chief Catherine Templeton and Yancey McGill, a former state senator-turned-lieutenant governor, are raising money to unseat Gov. Henry McMaster, who inherited the governor’s office when Gov. Nikki Haley resigned to become United Nations ambassador.

Waiting in the wings as possible Republican candidates are former S.C. Commerce Secretary Joe Taylor and state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort. Also, Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, is not ruling out a run for governor.

Meanwhile, Democrats are struggling to snag their first candidate.

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Former state Rep. Bakari Sellers, a rising S.C. Democratic star who has raised his national profile as a CNN commentator, is considering a run but won’t decide until the fall.

“There is no question Henry is the weakest candidate in recent history. Frankly, it’s been a lost decade-plus in South Carolina,” said Sellers, who lost by nearly 18 points to McMaster in the 2014 lieutenant governor’s race. “However, I have to evaluate whether there is the infrastructure in place to elect Democrats statewide.”

A long haul to the Mansion

Beating incumbent McMaster likely won’t be easy – especially for challengers who enter the fund-raising race late.

From late January through March, McMaster raised nearly $1 million for the 2018 race, a sum that some observers called lackluster. Meanwhile, Templeton impressed onlookers, raising $700,000 in her first fundraising quarter as a candidate.

But, by any measure, the candidates have a long way to go to compete. Haley, the incumbent in the 2014 race, raised $8.4 million to beat Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw.

A candidate would have to raise $11,500 a day between now and next June’s primaries to raise even half of what Haley hauled in for her re-election campaign.

McMaster already is putting together a campaign team for 2018.

The governor has tapped Tim Pearson, an adviser to Haley in her 2010 and 2014 victories, as his top strategist.

Two fundraisers – including Caroline Wren, a U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham fundraising alum – also have joined the McMaster campaign. That campaign will add a manager and communications staff soon, Pearson said Wednesday. “The race is setting up great for Henry.”

Templeton said she is focused on fundraising – “making sure we have the amount that we need to get the message out.”

To help, the Mount Pleasant labor law attorney has hired GOP fundraiser Drea Byars, who has raised money for several of the state’s GOP congressmen and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign.

Hiring a campaign strategist will come later, Templeton said. “That’s a ways away.”

McGill, who had raised $387,000 through March, was not available Wednesday.

GOP field may change

Some Republicans weighing a run could reshape the landscape for McMaster and his announced challengers.

Former Commerce Secretary Taylor, the multimillionaire chief executive of an investment firm, is spending time with family this month weighing whether to run.

Sen. Davis, a former aide to then-Gov. Mark Sanford, said this week he is weighing what is best for his family and whether the governor’s office is the best platform for making a difference in S.C. politics.

“I’ve been interested in making South Carolina a freer state, a state where you’ve got three co-equal branches of government,” said Davis, whose deadline to make a decision is Labor Day. “It’s all up in the air for me right now.”

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Bryant has been campaigning across the state on issues that are red meat for the GOP base. But Bryant might prefer to be someone’s running mate next year, when the governor and lieutenant governor will run on the same ticket for the first time.

“I could be somebody’s running mate,” Bryant told The State newspaper this week. “I could not be elected for anything. But my involvement in politics as a conservative activist will continue regardless.”

Meanwhile, one possible GOP candidate appears to be ruling himself out.

State Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, said he does not plan to run for governor after losing a razor-thin race for the GOP nomination for the 5th District’s congressional seat last month.

Pope said Wednesday that running in the 5th District’s 11 counties showed him how difficult running statewide would be, but he would never rule anything out.

‘Plenty of time for a Democrat’

Some of the S.C. Democratic Party’s brightest young stars say they are leaning against running, citing desires to spend more time with their families or devote more time to their day jobs.

That list includes: state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell of Lancaster, who delivered the Democratic State of the State rebuttal in 2016; state Sen. Thomas McElveen of Sumter, who gave the rebuttal this year; and state Sen. Marlon Kimpson of Charleston, popular among progressives for his gun-control efforts.

Meanwhile, state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, has been cagey about his interest in running, saying only he is considering a bid.

Democrats say they are not pushing the panic button – yet.

But some say the party should find a candidate soon. “There’s a lot of groundwork to be done if you’re going to run a viable campaign,” McElveen said.

State Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, says Democrats can be competitive as long as their candidate announces by the end of the year.

The rise of social media and the internet has cut into the need to campaign early, Hutto said. “There’s going to be plenty of time for a Democrat to become known throughout the spring.”

In 2014, Hutto filed to run for the U.S. Senate against Republican Lindsey Graham, rescuing the minority party from its only other candidate, a convicted felon who moved from Washington state to run against Graham.

Asked if he would step in to rescue the party again, Hutto said: “I won’t shut the door on anything, but that’s not my plan right now.”

Running for governor

Who’s in for 2018?

Republicans

In: Former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill of Williamsburg; Gov. Henry McMaster of Columbia; former DHEC director Catherine Templeton of Charleston

Maybe: Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant of Anderson; state Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort; former Commerce secretary Joe Taylor of Columbia

Probably out: S.C. House Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope of Rock Hill

Democrats

Maybe: Former state Rep. Bakari Sellers of Bamberg; state Rep. James Smith of Columbia

Probably out: State Sen. Brad Hutto of Orangeburg; state Sen. Marlon Kimpson of Charleston; state Sen. Thomas McElveen of Sumter; state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell of Lancaster