It was a feisty final debate for Gov. Henry McMaster and the four Republicans challenging him in his reelection bid.
Challengers Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, Catherine Templeton and John Warren hit McMaster for roads and his connections to a political consultant at the center of a corruption probe. McMaster insinuated back that at least one of his opponents had sought to be his lieutenant governor in 2016.
Tuesday’s SCETV/Post & Courier debate at the University of South Carolina was the final one voters make their choice in next week’s primary. The debate occurred one day after longtime State Sen. John Courson pleaded guilty to a misconduct in office charge. He was the second former lawmaker to plead guilty as part of an investigation into political consultant Richard Quinn, a former advisor of McMaster’s. Two others are still awaiting trial.
Warren said true ethics reform cannot happen with McMaster at the helm. “It’s never going to happen if we have a governor who employed the biggest criminal in our state for the past 30 years,” he said during the SCETV debate.
Charges were dropped against Quinn earlier this year, but his consulting group First Impressions, Inc., had to pay $5,500 for not registering as a lobbying group. His son Rick Quinn pleaded guilty to misconduct but got 500 hours community service and a fine… drawing the ire of Bryant.
“When one of the Quinn family was caught selling his vote for millions of dollars and walks away with a $1,000 fine, that is an insult to the taxpayers of this state and an invitation for corruption,” he said.
McMaster did not defend his Quinn connections beyond insisting that he has never been investigated and accusations of wrongdoing against him were not true.
The governor was able to redirect post-debate conversations by insinuating Templeton sought to be his lieutenant governor running mate back in 2016. His comments came after the former state public health chief noted she was interviewed by President Trump for U.S. Labor Secretary.
“That was after she’d come to me and asked to be my running mate, to be lieutenant governor,” McMaster said. He added that he’d already chosen Travelers Rest business executive Pamela Evette (although he would not publicly choose Evette until a year later).
Templeton disputed the governor’s account and said she’d instead told McMaster she would run for governor herself in 2018 (Gov. Nikki Haley would still have been in office in November 2016, although speculation was rampant that she’d take a post in the then-incoming Trump Administration).
“I came to tell you I was running for governor… in your office. And you said ‘Faih’ enuff,” Templeton told McMaster, feigning his Southern drawl. “And I said, ‘Fair enough.’ And I walked out. You told me my boots were made for walking. I remember like it was yesterday.”
McMaster’s campaign spokeswoman tweeted out text messages that showed Templeton sought a meeting with then-Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster around Thanksgiving 2016, but contains no mention of a possible lieutenant governor’s post. Afterwards, Templeton’s campaign manager said Templeton only approached McMaster after the president’s transition team reached out first.
On a question about roads, McMaster praised the Department of Transportation for quickly reopening the Wando River bridge. “We got that done in record time. And my hat is off to those people who worked around the clock 24 hours a day to get that done. It was a good plan and it worked.”
That prompted sarcasm from Warren. “Building a bridge is not a plan for the entire state,” he told McMaster. “Fixing one bridge? That’s what you’re bragging about?”
“What would you have done, John?” the governor fired back.
“We need a strategic plan,” Warren answered.
Templeton played off McMaster’s comments in the previous debate that voters should not replace the head coach when the team — or state’s economy, in this case — is “winning.”
“Our head coach went to the United Nations and our interim coach has had 16 months,” Templeton said, attributing most of the state’s major economic deals to previous Gov. Nikki Haley.
Former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill avoided criticizing his opponents but said the road funding system is “rigged” towards certain legislative districts. “I learned very quickly if you don’t go to those DOT commission meetings, if you don’t make your presence known, if you don’t ask about those bridges (in your district), when federal dollars would come in… most of my bridges got fixed,” he said.