Henry McMaster and James Smith (copy)

Henry McMaster (left) and James Smith

COLUMBIA — In his bid to upset Republican incumbent Henry McMaster and become the first Democrat elected to the governor's office since 1998, state Rep. James Smith is trying to cast himself as a centrist who will work cooperatively with leaders from both parties.

That familiar general election strategy has fallen short in years past.

State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, distanced himself from some of the more progressive policies of national Democrats, only to lose narrowly to Nikki Haley in 2010 followed by a blowout defeat in the 2014 rematch.

But new numbers from Smith's campaign have revived Democratic hopes that 2018 could be different.

A poll conducted earlier this month by a prominent D.C.-based Democratic firm, Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group, and shared with The Post and Courier showed Smith just 4 points shy of McMaster, 47 percent to 43 percent.

Further boosting confidence in the Smith camp, the poll sample tracked roughly similar to the state's voting history: 53 percent of respondents said they voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, close to the actual 55 percent figure.

Perhaps the most revealing finding came when respondents were offered positive descriptions of the candidates, similar to the talking points each has espoused on the campaign trail.

McMaster was described as a "proven conservative leader" who has kept taxes low, worked for years to make South Carolina a great place to live and wants to "embrace President Trump's agenda to move South Carolina forward."

The pollsters described Smith, on the other hand, as a decorated combat veteran who has worked with colleagues in the Statehouse from both sides of the aisle and has a "willingness to cross party lines and get things done." The description does not touch on any potentially polarizing Democratic policies.

With those descriptors in hand, Smith jumped out to a 5-point lead over McMaster: 51 percent to 46 percent.

Those results came despite a dramatic difference in name identification. Just 42 percent of respondents said they knew of Smith, a 22-year state legislator from Columbia, compared with 89 percent for McMaster, who has held a variety of high-profile roles in S.C. politics for decades.

Without a significant fundraising haul or financial assistance from national Democratic groups, who are already stretched thin in other competitive states, boosting his name recognition promises to be one of Smith's toughest challenges heading into the fall.

But Smith said the poll, which was conducted statewide between Aug. 6 to 9 with 605 likely voters, is encouraging. 

"The more people know about Henry McMaster, the more certain they are that he puts politics ahead of the people of South Carolina," Smith said. "And the more they get to know me, the more confidence they have that I can provide the new leadership they’re looking for."

The McMaster campaign declined to share their own internal polls. But a similar poll conducted by the Virginia-based Tarrance Group on behalf of the national Republican Governors Association suggested a less competitive race: 52 percent for McMaster, 41 percent for Smith and 7 percent undecided.

The pair of results offer the first public snapshot of how each campaign views the state of the race less than 11 weeks out from election day. 

Since winning the Democratic nomination in June, and even during the primary, Smith has consistently emphasized his crossover appeal.

He chose a running mate — state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell of Lancaster — who represents a relatively conservative district that tends to vote for Republicans in presidential elections.

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Even after his botched attempt to also become the nominee for three smaller political parties, including the Libertarian Party, Smith cast the idea as an effort to prove that he is "running to serve all South Carolinians, regardless of party."

McMaster campaign spokeswoman Caroline Anderegg disputed both Smith's poll results and his claims of centrism, pointing to his past votes for higher taxes, his support for abortion rights and comments he made during the primary that he supports a "Medicare-for-All" single payer system.

"This poll is as much of a fantasy as the idea that James Smith is a moderate," Anderegg said.

Smith's approach follows a customary playbook for Democrats in historically red states like South Carolina. 

"You certainly can't win South Carolina in 2018 by running as an extreme liberal," said Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University. "So obviously he has to make sure he stakes out the center."

But it comes with hazards, too.

Move too far away from the left flank and Smith risks alienating progressive activists that he will need to mobilize at historic levels to have a chance.

And with some of the endorsements Smith secured during the Democratic primary, like Planned Parenthood and the South Carolina chapter of Bernie Sanders' progressive organization Our Revolution, McMaster already has ammunition to portray Smith as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal.

Michael Morrill, executive director of progressive advocacy group Progress South Carolina, which has endorsed Smith, argued Democrats are so motivated to vote this year due to antipathy towards Trump that it gives more breathing room for candidates to try to broaden their base.

"In the case of the Smith campaign, it's probably wise to move to the center," Morrill said. "Progressive voters, particularly in South Carolina, have no place else to go."

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.

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