- Associated Press - Saturday, June 9, 2018

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The South Carolina governor’s race was supposed to be a wide-open contest this year, with Nikki Haley limited from pursuing a third term in office. South Carolina hasn’t elected a Democrat as its governor in 20 years, and the Republican field of candidates to replace her naturally would have been varied - and crowded.

But with Haley’s early departure last year to join the Trump administration as U.N. Ambassador, Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster - an early Donald Trump supporter - was elevated to the governorship he’d long sought when the president-elect cleared the path. Now, McMaster has had the last year and a half to develop the mantle of an incumbent, tallying up economic development announcements and championing issues aligned with the president’s priorities, like clamping down on sanctuary cities and restricting funding for groups affiliated with abortions.

Despite that track record, though, McMaster has four primary challengers. A yearslong probe of corruption within South Carolina’s state government has ensnared McMaster’s longtime political consultant, and his competitors have taken aim at the governor, even though he has not been charged or implicated in the case.

Debates among the five candidates started off as civil but this past week devolved into vicious barbs over the corruption probe and some of the state’s struggles, including a crumbling road and bridge infrastructure. McMaster and his top two challengers, former state public health chief Catherine Templeton and Greenville businessman John Warren, have all gone negative on one another on-air and online, launching television ads and websites critical of past actions and statements.

Templeton and Warren are banking on voters’ desire to elect political newcomers. Templeton twice served in Haley’s administration but has never pursued elected office. Warren, a Marine and businessman, is new to politics entirely.

Both McMaster and Templeton have clamored to align themselves with Trump in a state that voted overwhelmingly for him in 2016. McMaster, the first statewide elected official in the country to back Trump’s 2016 bid, has been endorsed by the president, hosting him for a fundraiser last year and featuring the president prominently in his television ads.

Three days before the primary, Trump backed McMaster again on Twitter .

Henry McMaster loves the people of South Carolina and was with me from the beginning,” said the message posted on the president’s account Saturday. “He is strong on Crime and Borders, great for our Military and our Vets. He is doing a fantastic job as your Governor, and has my full endorsement, a special guy. Vote on Tuesday!”

Templeton, courted by the administration for a U.S. Labor Department post, has said transition officials called her a “triple threat” in terms of possible strengths she could bring to the table.

Trump’s is not the only endorsement McMaster can boast. He’s backed by a multitude of statewide South Carolina officials, including Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers, as well as U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, the National Rifle Association, and SC Citizens For Life. Templeton has been endorsed by U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman, as well as state Sen. Shane Massey, that chamber’s Republican leader.

Warren has racked up significant backers also, just this past week getting an endorsement from Phil Robertson, patriarch of “Duck Dynasty” fame. In a YouTube video released Thursday, Robertson called on South Carolina voters to back “men who love God and who love you. That’s John Warren.”

McMaster and Templeton battled early for fundraising dollars, but the two - who have both raised millions over the course of the campaign - are facing off with Warren, who has primarily self-funded his primary effort. According to filings posted at the end of May, Templeton had more than $1 million on hand, raising more than $243,000 in the final period. McMaster had $770,000 on hand, bringing in more than $300,000.

Warren, who just entered the race in February, has contributed several million dollars to his own campaign, ending the final period with more than $704,000 on hand. All three have aired TV ads in heavy rotation.

Yancey McGill, a former Democratic state senator who briefly served as lieutenant governor, is also pursuing the Republican nomination, as is current Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant. Neither of them has garnered significant support in polling, and both campaigns have raised far less than the other three.

___

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Reach Kinnard at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP. Read her work at https://apnews.com/search/meg%20kinnard.


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