John Warren

Greenville businessman John Warren campaigns in Laurens on Monday, March 5, 2018. A Marine combat veteran, Warren is challenging South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster in the GOP primary. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

LAURENS — On a recent gubernatorial campaign stop at the Laurens County Library, Republican John Warren was asked if he has ever been a Democrat. Absolutely not, he responded.

"I cannot imagine anyone running in the Republican primary claiming to be a conservative that has actually voted for a Democrat," said Warren, a Greenville businessman.

The remark may have seemed innocuous. But to those who have been closely following the early stages of the 2018 South Carolina governor's race, it served as a clear jab at one of Warren's competitors — and a preview of what may come.

Several Republicans are now trying to outflank each other to become the main sparring partner for Gov. Henry McMaster, the longtime GOP stalwart they hope to unseat in the June 12 primary. 

Vying for the coveted "outsider" spot that elevated Nikki Haley to the governor's office in 2010 and Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016, Warren's recent entry to the race adds a new dynamic to an already crowded field that includes Catherine Templeton, a Mount Pleasant attorney, Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant of Anderson, and former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill of Kingstree.

The subtle shot Warren took in Laurens was aimed at Templeton, who voted for Democrat Vincent Sheheen in the 2010 governor's race against Haley.

Templeton has defended her vote by saying she did not know much about Haley during the 2010 race, and Sheheen was an old friend from law school. Campaigning in Murrells Inlet recently, Templeton also said she viewed Sheheen as a "truth-teller" and noted that "almost 50 percent of the state voted for him, too, so I wasn't alone."

After the 2010 race, Haley tapped Templeton to run the state labor department and later the public health agency. Templeton now says she has realized "we all make mistakes."

But with three months left until the primary, that detail is one of several that Warren, a Marine combat veteran, is using to distinguish himself as he tries to take over the mantle of lead challenger to McMaster.

'Battling for second place'

By virtue of being the incumbent, McMaster was always poised to enter the 2018 race as the early favorite. As a former attorney general and lieutenant governor, he holds a built-in advantage of strong name identification, and as the governor, he can take actions that boost his popularity.

The key question, analysts predict, is whether the challengers can keep McMaster below the 50 percent threshold he needs to avoid a runoff.

If they can, then one of McMaster's challengers will get a chance to face the governor one-on-one two weeks later, offering a much better chance to coalesce anti-establishment voters against the incumbent.

"They are battling for second place," said longtime GOP strategist Dave Wilson. "But battling for second place tends to be a good position from which to run because historically the winner often doesn't pull in many more voters during the run-off."

On many fronts, Warren and Templeton use near-identical messaging. 

Both brand themselves as "conservative outsiders" who can't be bought. Both highlight their private sector experience, vowing to bring a business-like approach to state government. Both are relatively young candidates — Templeton is 47 and Warren is 38 — who have never run for office before. McMaster is 70.

Criticizing the entrenched Columbia establishment remains the centerpiece of Warren's pitch. McMaster, whose public life began as a Reagan appointee, has spent decades in state politics.

Much like Templeton, Warren says one of his top focuses as governor will be rooting out corruption in the state.

But in smaller ways, Warren has looked to create some distance between himself and Templeton.

On debates around South Carolina's history, Templeton has proclaimed she is "proud of the Confederacy."

But when asked about the Confederate flag in Laurens, Warren responded, "I'm running for governor of 2018. I'm not running for governor of 1865."

On abortion, Warren said he is "100 percent pro-life" but supports exceptions for when the mother's life is in danger. Without naming names, Warren chided other candidates for "flip-flopping" on the issue.

Templeton recently changed her position on abortion, saying she no longer believes there should be any exceptions for victims of incest. 

If some conservative voters don't approve of Warren's more nuanced approach, he said that won't affect his campaign.

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"I don't do any pandering," Warren said. "I don't change who I am as a person. My message is the same message in every place that I go because that's who I am and I think that's what the voters want." 

'People hearing my story'

Warren has clearly been taking a close look at the numbers. Asked if he is worried that his late entry into the race will hurt his chances, he said polling has shown that the early start from others has not helped them because voters are still not satisfied with their choices.

"I would never have gotten in the race if I didn't see a clear path to victory," Warren said. "Ultimately it's about name recognition and people hearing my story and my message."

South Carolina's statewide primaries have a history of changing late in the game. In 2010, Haley rose above a pack of challengers in the final weeks of the race, thanks in large part to the endorsement of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

A lot of the challenge, Warren acknowledges, will be based on money. But as the founder of Lima One Capital, a Greenville-based mortgage finance company, he said campaign funds will not be a problem for him.

"My wife and I are committed to making the necessary financial commitment to where the name ID will not be an issue," Warren said.

He declined to put a figure on how much of his own money he's willing to spend because he said he wants to keep his opponents guessing. But Republican insiders say Warren and his family have more than enough resources at their disposal to put himself on level footing with McMaster and Templeton in the money race. That would have to be in the millions of dollars.

Both McMaster and Templeton had more than $2 million each in their campaign accounts at the beginning of 2018.

Warren has already sent out a statewide mail piece to GOP activists, an early indication of his campaign ramping up, and has hired several high-powered out-of-state consultants, including Tony Fabrizio, the pollster for Trump's presidential campaign.

As he wrapped up his stump speech in Laurens, Warren suggested the other candidates will not be excited to see him join the race.

"But that's a good sign for us," he said.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.