COLUMBIA (AP) By securing the Republican gubernatorial nomination, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has come a step closer to reaping the payoff of what may have been the biggest political risk of his life.
McMaster has spent years in government service and is popular across the state, but his victory in the state’s GOP runoff over Greenville businessman John Warren may not have been possible if not for his relationship with President Donald Trump.
Their connection seemed improbable in early 2016 when McMaster, then serving as South Carolina’s largely ceremonial lieutenant governor, climbed out onto a political limb just before the state’s early primary and became the nation’s first statewide-elected official to endorse candidate Trump.
McMaster had been a stalwart of South Carolina’s GOP political establishment for years. The former state and federal prosecutor and GOP chairman was by all estimations the political opposite of Trump, who was flaunting his inexperience in politics and vowing to “drain the swamp.”
McMaster had initially supported South Carolina native son U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, but when his longtime colleague departed the race early, McMaster said he fielded calls from a number of other GOP hopefuls before making his surprise move. The endorsement was so unexpected that his longtime adviser and current chief of staff Trey Walker tweeted: “No one in SC politics is more disappointed than me.”
But McMaster was adamant, saying Trump’s plain-spoken nature was part of what made his candidacy so attractive.
“He speaks the truth as he sees it, in words everybody understands.” McMaster said back then. “And, ladies and gentlemen, that’s something unusual in politics. It’s a delightful thing to see.”
His move marked a significant divide between McMaster and then-Gov. Nikki Haley, at the time a vocal opponent of Trump’s rhetoric.
But the GOP came around once Trump was nominated, and as he marched on to victory that November, McMaster’s gambit began paying off. Trump picked Haley — seen as a rising GOP star — as his ambassador to the United Nations. And that cleared the way for McMaster to ascend to the governorship he had sought since losing a bruising primary to Haley seven years earlier.
McMaster’s campaign for a first full term essentially began as soon as he took office, as several candidates announced their challenges for this year’s Republican nomination. But Trump returned McMaster’s favor, announcing his support and coming to the state last fall for a fundraiser.
McMaster was the top individual vote-getter in the first round on June 12, but failed to get the majority, forcing him into a two-week sprint against Warren. Trump tweeted and dispatched Vice President Mike Pence to stump with McMaster over the weekend, and then, just hours before polls opened, he flew to South Carolina again, urging thousands of supporters to “get your asses out tomorrow and vote.”
In his victory speech the night of June 26, McMaster didn’t thank Trump by name, but he did remind South Carolinians of his proximity to the president, who later called the governor to congratulate him.
“Carroll Campbell had something that other governors had not had before, and that is, he had a close relationship with the people in the White House,” McMaster said, hearkening back to the late Republican governor’s proximity to the Reagan and Bush administrations. “Since that time, we have not enjoyed that relationship – but we’ve got it now, as you saw last night!”