The four Republicans challenging Gov. Henry McMaster in next month’s primary largely tried to portray themselves as conservative outsiders to an establishment governor during Wednesday night’s GOP debate in Clemson.
While they rarely went after McMaster personally, the challengers did hit him for his donations from utility companies and the perception that he has largely maintained the status quo since taking office in January 2017. It was their first opportunity to do so in a direct debate, since McMaster did not attend two previous events the past two weeks.
McMaster, for his part, pointed to the economic growth and historically-low unemployment rate during his tenure. “You don’t fire the coach and put in a rookie when your team is winning,” he said. “You give that coach a new contract and you keep winning.”
But former state environmental chief Catherine Templeton and Greenville businessman John Warren hit the governor for the V.C. Summer project’s failure under his watch and for corruption cases tied to McMaster’s former political consultant Richard Quinn.
“We looked at (our camapign) as an eight-year deployment to fight a political insurgency in Columbia that is ultimately attacking the taxpayers,” Warren said, comparing his campaign to his service in Iraq. “And the first thing that we will do is take on the state agencies that the governor can control.”
Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant also tried to maintain his “outsider” status, despite his 13 years in the state Senate and two in his current office. He noted frequently opposing budgets and sponsoring anti-abortion efforst which put him at odds with his own GOP colleagues. He vowed to veto any budget which included federal family planning dollars for Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers. When McMaster pointed to the waiver his administration is seeking from the federal government to do the same, Bryant claimed it was not enough.
“I issued the order to seek that waiver and I hope we get it,” McMaster said. “We’re working for it.”
“My plan does it now. We don’t have to wait on the federal government,” Bryant countered. “Lets do it now. Let’s not wait on permission from Washington, D.C.”
While characterizing herself as a political outsider, Templeton frequently pointed to her time leading the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) under then-Gov. Nikki Haley. She argued the experience helped her understand the extent of corruption and waste in government
“I walked in with Gov. Nikki Haley and we both made sure that it was a transparent, efficient, fiscally-responsible conservative and bold state,” she said. “And I’m looking forward to doing that again.”
Former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill was the notable exception among the challengers. The former Democratic senator repeatedly expressed that he was proud of his time in the chamber and the work he did to help keep the state’s AAA credit rating and bring economic growth to his native Williamsburg County.
The Clemson debate was the first of two officially sanctioned by the South Carolina Republican Party. Another is scheduled for the week before the June 12 primary.
The three Democratic candidates will square off in their Clemson debate Thursday night, beginning at 7 p.m. The debate will air on SCETV. Both are also sponsored by the Charleston Post & Courier.