AP Photo/Susan Walsh
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — President Donald Trump’s support wasn’t enough for Luther Strange to win the GOP nomination in Alabama’s U.S. Senate race. Will the story be different in South Carolina’s gubernatorial contest?
Fresh off the Alabama defeat of his chosen candidate to replace Jeff Sessions, Trump is again wading into southern, horse-race politics. He visits South Carolina on Monday to appear at a private fundraiser for one of his earliest backers, Gov. Henry McMaster.
But some here in this ultra-red state are seeing similarities with the high-profile defeat of Trump’s candidate in Alabama.
Both Strange and McMaster have impeccable Republican credentials. Strange fought same-sex marriage as Alabama attorney general. McMaster headed South Carolina’s GOP for years, was its top prosecutor and was elected lieutenant governor in 2014. Both men were elevated to their current offices by appointment, not election. Strange was appointed by then-Gov. Robert Bentley to take over Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Senate seat. McMaster became governor when Trump picked Nikki Haley as his U.N. ambassador.
Both Strange and McMaster took political risks to support Trump’s presidential candidacy. Known for rewarding loyalty, Trump has backed their candidacies.
But Strange lost the nomination to conservative firebrand Roy Moore, who was twice removed as Alabama Supreme Court chief justice. The first removal was for defying a federal judge’s order to take down a Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building. He was elected again but was permanently suspended after a judicial discipline panel ruled he urged probate judges to deny marriage licenses to gay couples. Moore was propelled by his support from evangelical voters across the mostly white, Christian-dominated state where voters have repeatedly embrace outsiders who campaign on embracing God and rebuffing authority.
McMaster – even though he’s the incumbent – isn’t receiving political deference: several Republicans are challenging him in the primary. His most formidable opponent thus far is Catherine Templeton, an anti-union attorney who served Haley as head of the state’s labor and public health departments.
The Trump administration tried to woo Templeton to Washington, offering her a slot at the Department of Labor. But Templeton passed, saying that she would instead focus on South Carolina, where she’s amassed a campaign war chest nearly commensurate to McMaster’s. She’s matched or beat the governor in quarterly fundraising, topping his haul by about $30,000 in the most recent filing period. Both candidates are approaching $2 million cash on hand.
Some South Carolina political watchers are questioning if McMaster, about to enter his fourth decade in politics, may be relying too heavily on Trump’s support to boost his 2018 election chances. Chad Walldorf, a businessman who served in former Gov. Mark Sanford’s administration, said he sees the parallels with Alabama.
“I respect loyalty, but it seems that Trump is again misreading the situation on the ground, getting behind the establishment candidate who was not elected to his position, running against a credible agent of change who’s garnering more significant grass roots support,” he said, referring to Templeton in South Carolina. “At least from the voter standpoint, it seems to me that folks eager for change are eagerly jumping on the Templeton bandwagon.”
Walldorf also said he was impressed at Templeton’s ability to outraise McMaster. Templeton not only raised more money than the incumbent in the filing period that ended this month, but more than 90 percent of her donations came from donors within South Carolina, not bundlers or national action groups. McMaster’s donations were also mostly from inside the state, although more than one-third of his contributions were from out-of-state donors.
Templeton told The Associated Press recently her approach to fundraising has been traditional: small, weeknight gatherings, as well as weekend dove hunts and skeet shoots. Over and over, Templeton said she keeps hearing that, while people appreciate McMaster’s service, it’s time for change.
“We didn’t elect who is in office right now, and I’m an outsider running against the last three lieutenant governors – but we know it’s time for conservative leadership that will end corruption and shrink a growing government,” Templeton said.
Tim Pearson, a senior McMaster adviser, said he believes McMaster’s message is still popular among the South Carolinians he’s served and would only be amplified by the president’s visit.
“He’s beloved here,” Pearson said of Trump, who he said has a “great friendship” with McMaster and has hosted him at the White House several times.