- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 19, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - When South Carolina Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster announced his early support of Donald Trump, many wondered why the establishment Republican was backing the out-of-the-box candidate. Even some within the longtime GOP fixture’s inner circle publicly expressed disappointment of his pick.

With McMaster stepping into the national spotlight Tuesday to give a speech officially submitting Trump as the GOP nominee, however, his wager is apparently beginning to pay off.

In a year with a Republican field that covered just about every angle of a fractured party, many presumed the veteran politician would back an establishment choice, like Jeb Bush or even native son Lindsey Graham, with whom McMaster shares a longtime political strategist.

But days before South Carolina’s February primary balloting, McMaster emerged at a rally with Trump, saying the billionaire businessman had a unique opportunity to unite the party, which was suffering from the lengthy, hard-fought primary season.

“He’s a man of action,” McMaster said then. “He speaks the truth as he sees it in words everybody understands. And, ladies and gentlemen, that’s something unusual in politics. It’s a delightful thing to see.”

As the news trickled out, reaction was surprise, even dismay.

“No one in SC politics is more disappointed than me,” tweeted Trey Walker, a former aide who spent years serving McMaster in various capacities. Political journalists reported receiving messages of disbelief from Republicans throughout the state.

McMaster has been a fixture in Republican politics in the state since 1981. That year he became President Ronald Reagan’s first nominee to a U.S. Attorney position, repeatedly featuring footage of the two together in subsequent campaign ads. As GOP nominee, McMaster lost twice, defeated in 1986 by U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings and in 1990 by Lt. Gov. Nick Theodore.

McMaster led South Carolina’s Republican Party for nearly a decade thereafter. His leadership ushered in an era of GOP dominance as the party captured the governor’s office, statewide offices and both legislative chambers. In 2002, McMaster was elected as the state’s attorney general, an office he held until 2010.

That year, he placed third in a four-way GOP primary for governor, losing out to Gov. Nikki Haley. He ultimately endorsed the front-runner, led her transition efforts and became her lieutenant governor in 2014.

The pair have worked together on a variety of issues, although they’ve differed starkly in terms of the Republican presidential race. Very vocal in her criticism of Trump, Haley said last month she wished Trump communicated differently because bad things result from divisive rhetoric - as evidenced by last June’s mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston.

At the state GOP convention in May, McMaster rallied the party faithful to Trump, calling him uniquely positioned to unite the country’s Republicans. Haley didn’t even mention Trump by name, opting instead to go after the Republican-dominated Legislature for spending time and money on projects that benefit themselves.

But the governor, who initially backed Marco Rubio before reluctantly saying she’d support Ted Cruz over Trump, has continued to say she would support the eventual Republican nominee.

Ed McMullen, who heads up Trump’s South Carolina campaign, said that, throughout his long tenure in politics, McMaster has always sought new ways to invigorate the party, a mentality that led to its election victories during his time as chairman. That longevity, McMullen said, doesn’t mean that McMaster isn’t on the cutting edge.

“He didn’t care what other people thought,” McMullen said of McMaster’s decision to go with Trump, with whom he has met several times. “Henry is going to be Henry.”

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Kinnard can be reached at https://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP . Read more of her work at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/meg-kinnard/

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