COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster raised more than $960,000 in contributions to start the year, a good enough haul to put some slight distance over his main Republican challenger in the 2018 governor's race.
But it's still not quite enough to erase questions whether the ongoing South Carolina Statehouse corruption scandal could hurt his campaign.
In a tightening field, McMaster finds himself fighting to court donors while keeping at bay his ties to a political consultant who has become the focus of the probe led by 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe.
While McMaster's number puts him atop the GOP field, it leaves his main challenger within striking distance for what is expected to be a competitive primary next June.
Charleston attorney Catherine Templeton reported last week raising $700,000 during the first quarter of 2017 that ended March 31, an amount considered surprising for a candidate running in her first race.
Templeton, a former director of two state agencies, tapped some of the same political networks as former Gov. Nikki Haley, who defeated McMaster in the 2010 race but ceded the Governor's Mansion to him earlier this year after becoming President Donald Trump's ambassador to the United Nations.
Greenville political strategist Chip Felkel and Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said McMaster had raised enough to put some daylight ahead of Templeton in his report filed shortly before the deadline at midnight Monday.
"He's still drinking out of a fire hose from being governor," Felkel said. "Raising money is not his day job."
McMaster — a former U.S. attorney, state attorney general, South Carolina GOP chairman and lieutenant governor — has been in office since late January.
Still, Huffmon added that once McMaster became governor, and with U.S. Sen Tim Scott not entering the race, "most folks thought he would coast in the election. To face a well-funded primary challenger is not something that he expected."
McMaster did not start raising money until he took over the governor's office.
"The groundwork has been set for a state and national finance structure that will fund a victorious campaign for the governor. It will be huge," said Brad Henry, a financial consultant for McMaster's campaign, playing on one of Trump's catch phrases, whom McMaster supported in the 2016 presidential primary.
The unknown variable in the governor's race, however, continues to be McMaster's connection to Richard Quinn & Associates, a now highly scrutinized consulting firm that is at the center of an ongoing state corruption investigation.
Quinn, who has led McMaster's campaigns for attorney general and governor in the past, has not been charged in the corruption probe, but his Columbia-area firm has reportedly had documents seized by state law enforcement officials and seen subpoenas issued for the firm's contracts.
McMaster has continually stood by the beleaguered consulting firm in his public statements, but it's yet to be seen whether his loyalty to the influential consulting company will harm his political brand moving forward.
According to his finance report, the governor has not spent any campaign funds yet with Richard Quinn & Associates. More than half of McMaster's $55,700 in expenses went to financial consultant Henry's office in Columbia.
Templeton told The Post and Courier that she has not tried to exploit McMaster's connections to Richard Quinn & Associates when soliciting contributions. But in her official campaign announcement, Templeton cited the "corruption, waste, self interest, and good ol boy system," she says is active in the Statehouse.
Huffmon said he expects Templeton to benefit from the investigation in fundraising while branding herself as a new voice in Columbia.
For McMaster, Huffmon said, "He has to tap into his network and show he has a war chest."
"He's got to tell voters that he's the steady hand the state needs," Huffmon said. "But that's going to be hard to do while having to distance himself from the scandals."
Around 85 percent of the nearly 650 donors that gave to McMaster so far this year live in South Carolina. Templeton had a slightly higher percentage of in-state contributions among her nearly 500 donors in the first quarter.
Roughly one-fourth of McMaster's donors gave the maximum $3,500 allowed under state law for the primary, about the same percentage as Templeton.
Another declared 2018 GOP hopeful, former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill, who switched from the Democratic to Republican Party last year, had not filed his campaign disclosure report as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the State Ethics Commission website. Reports were due by midnight Monday.
McGill, a former longtime state senator from Williamsburg County, also has not filed an economic disclosure report for 2016 that was due to the Ethics Commission on March 30. McGill did not return phone messages Tuesday.
No Democrats have entered the 2018 governor's race.