South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster won the Republican primary runoff on Tuesday after a full court press by President Donald Trump on behalf of one of his earliest supporters.
The GOP contest tested the weight of the president’s backing in a state that he carried easily in 2016 and where he remains widely popular. McMaster’s win underscores Trump’s continuing hold on his party’s base.
McMaster, who had been serving as lieutenant governor, assumed the top job in early 2017 after Trump tapped then-Gov. Nikki Haley (R) to serve as his ambassador to the United Nations. The incumbent now will be heavily favored in his quest for a full four-year term in November’s general election. A Democrat has won a South Carolina gubernatorial race only once since 1986.
McMaster received the most votes in a five-candidate June 12 primary but fell short of the 50 percent needed to secure the nomination outright. In the runoff, he squared off against Greenville businessman John Warren, a political outsider who like McMaster stressed his fidelity to Trump and his policies.
Warren also attacked the governor for what he termed a “record of corruption, higher taxes and failed leadership,” citing the indictment of a former top McMaster political consultant on charges of conspiracy and illegal lobbying.
McMaster made Trump’s endorsement a central issue in the campaign by questioning Warren’s loyalty to the president, citing his support of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in the 2016 GOP presidential primary.
“My opponent did not support President Trump in the primary. … Had my opponent had his way, we wouldn’t have had [Trump] as president,” McMaster said Sunday in an interview on Fox News.
Trump went all out to secure McMaster’s win. He posted several tweets over the past week praising the governor and noting his early support ― McMaster was the first statewide elected GOP official in the nation to back Trump’s presidential campaign. The White House also dispatched Vice President Mike Pence to campaign for McMaster over the weekend. And that was followed by Trump’s appearance with the governor in the state capital of Columbia on Monday night.
At the rally, Trump didn’t hesitate linking McMaster’s fate to his own prestige. A McMaster loss would be seen as “a humiliating defeat for Donald Trump,” the president said.
“So please, get your asses out [on Tuesday] and vote!” he said.
In a tweet early Tuesday, Trump touted McMaster’s record and assured South Carolinians that the governor “will never let you down.”
Trump has had mixed success helping prop up his favored candidates various races over the past year. Most recently, he waded into another South Carolina GOP faceoff and his endorsement of state Rep. Katie Arrington propelled her to a win over Rep. Mark Sanford in the June 12 primary.
But his backing failed to boost then-Sen. Luther Strange in Alabama’s Republican primary last September for a Senate special election. Strange lost to Roy Moore, who Trump then pushed for in the December vote. But Moore, plagued by sexual abuse allegations, lost that race to Democrat Doug Jones.
The president’s endorsement similarly failed to hoist Republican Rick Saccone to a House seat in Pennsylvania’s Trump-friendly suburbs in a March special election.
Few public polls were conducted on South Carolina’s GOP gubernatorial runoff, which added some drama to the race. A final survey released by The Trafalgar Group showed a potentially close race, which probably explains the decision by Trump and Pence to campaign for McMaster in the campaign’s final days.
In the Nov. 6 election McMaster faces Democrat James Smith, a state lawmaker and Army veteran who served in Afghanistan.