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Gov. Henry McMaster wins reelection, turning back challenge from Democrat Joe Cunningham

COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster won his second full term, defeating Democrat Joe Cunningham with a message that South Carolina's economy is booming with him at the helm and he will ensure it keeps improving.

"We’re on a good track right now. South Carolina's booming, and we’re going to keep on booming," he told supporters gathered at the University of South Carolina Alumni Center late Nov. 8.

He wrapped up a five-minute speech by quoting two singers.  

"In the words of Bonnie Raitt, we’ve got more work to do, so 'let’s give them something to talk about,'" McMaster said. "There's going to be more and more. Like that famous philosopher Tim McGraw said, who's also a country-western singer: 'I like it. I love it. I want some more of it.'"

The crowd joined in on shouting the last line. 

Unofficial results show McMaster won with 58 percent of the votes to Cunningham's 41 percent. That 17-point spread is more than double McMaster's winning margin four years ago over former state Rep. James Smith.

The victory sets up McMaster to be South Carolina's longest-serving governor. The Republican initially ascended to the role in 2017 when Nikki Haley resigned to join President Donald Trump's White House as U.N. ambassador.  

The win also further solidifies South Carolina's reputation as a red state. South Carolina voters have not elected a Democrat to a statewide office since 2006. Four GOP constitutional officers on the ballot this year faced no Democratic opponent.

That includes Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers, who trounced two third-party challengers with 78 percent of the vote.  

Democrat Rosemounda Peggy Butler challenged Secretary of State Mark Hammond, but he won easily with 63 percent, according to unofficial results.

Cunningham, a former one-term congressman from Charleston, sought to become the first Democrat sent to the Governor's Mansion in 24 years by offering a new approach. But his pledges to out-cut Republicans on taxes, while championing ideas McMaster has long opposed — primarily, legalizing marijuana and expanding legal gambling — didn't have the crossover appeal he needed. 

“We tried to run a campaign that y’all could be proud of,” Cunningham said of the loss. “No matter what the critics say, no matter what the pundits say, it means something to stand up and fight back against something bigger than yourself.”

He added that "at 40 years young, I like to think my best days are ahead of me, not behind me."

Cunningham faced a money disadvantage in getting his agenda out. As of the Oct. 19 pre-election filings, he had raised $3.4 million total to McMaster's $7.6 million.  

The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in June that overturned Roe v. Wade seemed to boost Cunningham's chances, temporarily at least. He painted McMaster as an anti-abortion extremist while promising to veto any bill banning abortion. When the Legislature came back for an extended session specifically to debate an abortion ban, it appeared a bill would land on McMaster's desk before the election anyway.

It didn't. But something else happened that may have dulled the urgency of Cunningham's argument: Senators, who don't face re-election this year, have repeatedly refused to approve legislation banning abortions at conception. A state law McMaster signed last year banning abortions around six weeks, with exceptions, remains suspended amid a review by the state Supreme Court.

At their only debate, McMaster never gave a "yes" or "no" on whether he would sign a bill outlawing all abortions without exceptions.

Instead, he said, "Mr. Cunningham well knows no such bill is going to ever reach my desk."

At 75, McMaster is the oldest governor in South Carolina's history. 

Cunningham, 40, tried to make the election a referendum on age and career politicians, arguing the incumbent is part of the "geriatric oligarchy" who should be forced into retirement. 

While McMaster never directly responded to allegations that he's too old for office, he successfully blunted that pitch by presenting Cunningham as an unserious candidate who lacks the relationships inside the Statehouse to get things done.

On the campaign trail and in TV ads, Cunningham repeatedly stressed that McMaster, who was first appointed to public office in 1981 as South Carolina's U.S. attorney, has been in politics longer than he's been alive. But McMaster, who first won elected office in 2002 as state attorney general, turned that criticism into a positive.

And McMaster's supporters, including legislators, noted South Carolina governors can't make laws on their own.  

"His opponent keeps talking about how he's going to change the tax structure, how he's going to make marijuana legal, how he's going to make abortion legal. All I've got to say is, he can't do anything without the relationships, and the relationships built between this governor and our state representatives and our Senate are second to none," said Rep. Chris Wooten, R-Lexington, who is unopposed for re-election. 

"You can have more degrees than a thermometer, but if you don’t have this kind of relationship, we’re not getting anything done," Wooten said at a McMaster rally in Lexington on Election Day-eve, evoking laughter from the crowd. "South Carolina is thriving because of the relationships built with this governor." 

South Carolina's lone Democrat in Congress, 82-year-old House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, also provided McMaster a convenient way to counter Cunningham.  

"I'd echo Congressman Clyburn when he said, 'Grow up, Joe,'" McMaster said during their Oct. 26 debate. (In June, Clyburn told a reporter, "Joe needs to grow up," in response to Cunningham's proposal of a 72-year-old age limit for politicians.) 

McMaster made the campaign into a referendum against President Joe Biden — telling voters to say no to both Joes — and the pandemic mandates imposed by Democratic governors.  

"We don't do crazy here," he said on the campaign trail and in TV ads. 

He repeatedly reminded voters that he refused to issue long-term shutdowns in his pandemic executive orders.

"If all of the red states had gone like the blue states did, all of the states would’ve been shut down completely," McMaster told supporters in Lexington at the last of 19 stops on his statewide bus tour. 

"We took a measured approach. We tapped the brakes, tapped the brakes, and as soon as we could we stepped on the gas. And here we are, best year we’ve ever had," he said about capital investment in the state. "Buckle up, because we’re going right straight to the top."

Questions on the ballot will require the Legislature to sock more money away for a rainy day and dip into reserves first if a recession hits. Voters overwhelming said "yes" to both, with 62 percent approval. 

That means voters supported amending the state constitution to mandate setting aside at least 10 percent of general fund collections, up from 7 percent. And in case revenues plummet like they did in the Great Recession, legislators could dip into reserves to avoid mid-year budget cuts to state agencies instead of cutting first, then going to savings. 

The Legislature will need to ratify voters' decision after they return in January to actually amend the constitution. 

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

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Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.

Political Editor

Schuyler Kropf is The Post and Courier political editor. He has covered every major political race in South Carolina dating to 1988, including for U.S. Senate, governorship, the Statehouse and Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.

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