COLUMBIA — In a show of force, James Smith sealed the Democratic nomination for governor Tuesday, easily outdistancing his two primary opponents and pitching himself as a candidate capable of loosening the Republican grip on South Carolina government come November.
Smith, a Columbia-area attorney, Statehouse lawmaker and member of the Army National Guard who served in Afghanistan, collected more than 63 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results.
The finish gives Smith's campaign a jumpstart on the general election, as current Gov. Henry McMaster and Upstate businessman John Warren battle it out in a Republican runoff election set for June 26.
"The people who voted today clearly rejected the negative and divisive politics in the Republican primary," Smith said, as he addressed his supporters in downtown Columbia.
Marguerite Willis, an attorney from Florence, received around 26 percent of the vote, according to the unofficial results, and Phil Noble, a Charleston-area businessman, received around 10 percent.
"He had a huge victory. He ought to take it and run," Noble said, after congratulating Smith on the victory.
All three Democratic candidates focused their campaigns in past months on increasing funding for the state's schools, expanding the state's Medicaid program and lowering people's electricity bills in the face of the abandoned nuclear project at V.C. Summer station in Fairfield County.
But with little separating them in policy, Noble and Willis attacked Smith over the 22 years he spent serving in the South Carolina Legislature.
They also attempted to rebuke Smith for his associations with several Republican politicians in Columbia, including current Attorney General Alan Wilson and former Rep. Rick Quinn, who pleaded guilty to misconduct in office earlier this year.
In the run-up to Tuesday's election, Noble made a point to criticize the Democratic Party for consistently selecting a Democrat from the Statehouse to run for governor for decades.
"This is a referendum on the failed and broken corrupt system we have in Columbia that has held us back," Noble said during a debate last month, casting himself as the fresh choice. "It is a referendum on politics as usual."
David Edmond, a Richland County resident, voted for Noble during the early voting period. Edmond recognized Noble wasn't the favorite of most of the party's leadership but he liked the Charleston businessman after seeing him during a candidate forum earlier this year in Columbia.
"I went by feel," Edmond said.
Smith, however, views his time in the Statehouse as an asset and believes his relationships with Republican lawmakers would enable him to achieve his goals as governor, even with the Legislature remaining under Republican control.
"I think the key in this election is experience," Smith said.
More than a few voters in Columbia on Tuesday said Smith's record in the Statehouse and his 12-month tour of duty in Afghanistan made him the most appealing candidate.
"I know people like the outsider but you have to know how to get stuff done," said Beth Edgar, 49, who was voting in Smith's own precinct.
Edgar and her husband, Chip Edgar, both voted for former Gov. Nikki Haley in the last gubernatorial election. But they liked Smith's "record of service," they said.
Connie and Leon Ginsberg said they’ve wanted Smith to run for governor for years. The couple has followed his work in the Statehouse, and voted for Smith Tuesday morning.
“He knows the issues. He’s an honest and forthright guy. He’s intelligent and ethical,” said Leon Ginsberg, an Army veteran and retired University of South Carolina professor.
Diane Sumpter, who voted in Columbia's 9th ward, liked Noble personally but she believed his policies made it impossible for him to defeat the Republican nominee later this year.
"He's too liberal," Sumpter said of Noble.
Smith was busy Tuesday morning trying to reinforce the idea that his candidacy could attract Democrats and moderate Republican voters alike — something his campaign will likely have to accomplish if they want to take over the Governor's Mansion.
"For my entire life, I have worked to build coalitions to bring people together to face real problems and come up with common sense solutions and get them passed," Smith said after casting his own ballot. "I have a history of doing that."