|| by Will Galloway ||
Columbia – Back in January, we broke down where the race for Governor of South Carolina stands. In the past three months, the candidates have continued to raise money, held events, hit the airwaves, and traded barbs. Here, we’ll explore where the race stands with just over two months until South Carolinians head to the polls.
Five candidates, Gov. Henry McMaster, Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, former DHEC Director Catherine Templeton, former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill, and Greenville businessman John Warren, have filed to run for the Republican nomination.
The most recent public poll, conducted by Target Insyght, has McMaster at 46%, Templeton at 22%, Bryant at 6%, McGill at 4%, and Warren at 1%. We would guess that this survey has slightly overstated McMaster’s support and slightly understated Bryant’s support, but Templeton, Warren, and McGill’s numbers seem about right at this stage.
This quarter, Templeton raised $557,978.60 and has just over $2.5 million on hand, leaving her in a very strong financial position as the campaign heads into the final stretch. In January, we said that Bryant needed to kick his fundraising into high gear if he were to remain competitive in the race. He raised a paltry $21,756.46 this quarter, and has less than $200,000 to spend over the next two months. While anemic compared to the much larger campaign accounts of McMaster, Warren, and Templeton, Bryant’s war chest still dwarfs the $422.98 that Yancey McGill has in the bank. Warren posted a strong quarter, with a total of $659,822.56 (About $500,000 was self funded). McMaster had filed with the State Ethics Commission at the time of this writing, but his campaign said it had raised $740,910 this quarter, with $2.97 million in the bank.
There has also been some movement in campaign staff this quarter. An abrupt departure from McMaster campaign manager Katie Baham (our sources have provided mixed information as to whether she quit or was fired) led to the hiring of Graham campaign veteran Scott Farmer. Farmer guided Graham’s reelection in 2014, including a primary fight against a slew of right wing challengers. Bryant also had a campaign manager, James Epley, quit to run for Congress in the fourth congressional district. His campaign now appears to be managed by Dark Horse Strategy Group.
Templeton severed her ties with First Tuesday Strategies, and has built a strong campaign team lead by RJ May Sam Vetter, both of whom helped lead Rep. Ralph Norman to a tough victory in the fourth congressional district last year. Warren’s strategy is being guided by the Georgia-based Stone Ridge Group and former Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio. His staff also includes a pair of upstate political operatives, Matt Thomas and Elliot Kelly.
The candidates have also started to hit the airwaves during this quarter. McMaster and Templeton traded barbs over a pro-Templeton ad paid for by a group that McMaster contends is funded by out of state anti-Trump forces. Warren has been running an aggressive statewide ad buy intended to introduce himself to voters and boost his name recognition.
So where do the candidates stand?
McMaster is all but a lock to earn a spot in a likely runoff. He has several significant advantages over the field, including a full war chest, the support of President Donald Trump, and a running mate in Pamela Evette, which allows his campaign to cover the state much faster than his opponents.
Templeton, Warren, Bryant, and McGill are all vying for the second spot in the likely runoff against McMaster. This puts each of these candidates in a precarious position. They’ll have to take care to differentiate themselves from the other three challengers without turning off the supporters of the other candidates (who they will need to be successful in a runoff). Conventional wisdom is that the challenger would be best positioned in a runoff, but it is easy to see a scenario in which a candidate who did not reach the runoff endorses McMaster purely out of spite.
Bryant and McGill will be relying on grassroots events and word of mouth to spread their message. Both have a devoted core of supporters in areas of the state, but they may struggle to overcome the money deficit between them and the top three candidates.
Warren and Templeton have both been barnstorming the state and the airwaves. Templeton will be looking to convert her “soft” support into “hard” support, and try to climb into the upper 20’s or 30’s. Warren will be injecting significant funds to raising his name ID and try to move the needle fast and edge his way into the runoff.
We’d say McMaster’s best bet is to win outright on the June 12 primary (he’d need about 10-6 points to do this). We believe that if the challengers remain united against McMaster, then the challenger in the runoff would be a slight favorite for the nomination.
While it has attracted significantly less press coverage from the media, the race for the democratic nomination is just as intriguing as the republican race. Combat veteran and State Representative James Smith is facing Charleston businessman Phil Noble and anti-trust attorney Marguerite Willis from the left.
As of this writing, none of the democrats had filed their campaign finance reports, but we expect all three to have enough in the bank to run strong campaigns. Willis, who has reported an annual income of well over a million dollars, will likely be investing significant personal resources in her campaign.
The Target Insyght poll shows a tie at 27% between Smith and Noble, and Willis trailing at 21%. These numbers strike us as about right, but we’d guess that Smith’s actual support is a little higher than Noble’s.
Marguerite Willis named Richland County Senator John Scott as her running mate during this quarter, becoming the only democrat to select a campaign partner. We’ve heard some speculation that Smith will chose Senator Mia McLeod as his running mate, but we’re not sure that an all-Richland County ticket would be Smith’s smartest move.
We’d argue that Smith is still the frontrunner for the nomination, but in the words of one GOP strategist with significant statewide experience, “These are the people who nominated Alvin Green, so you never know.” The ad war has not yet started in the democratic primary, and when it does, we’ll get a sense of how strong a frontrunner Smith really is.