Henry McMaster and James Smith

Henry McMaster (left) and James Smith

COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster needed more than $1 million to fend off a wealthy rival in a fierce Republican runoff last month, finishing a primary that almost cost more than any South Carolina gubernatorial campaign.

The high mark of $17.9 million, set in the 2010 governor's race, will be broken well before McMaster faces Democrat James Smith in November.

Much of the $17 million-plus spent by eight candidates during this year's record primary came from Republicans. 

McMaster, who has the backing of President Donald Trump, gathered almost $5.7 million to win the nomination in a five-candidate field. That doesn't include more than $1 million spent by third-party pro-McMaster groups.

Greenville's John Warren, a wealthy political newcomer and former Marine combat officer, reached the runoff by shelling out $4 million, including $3.3 million of his own money that paid for an advertising blitz and to hire consultants used by Trump. Warren has already said he is considering a challenge to U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca, in 2020. 

Mount Pleasant attorney Catherine Templeton, another newcomer, spent $3.7 million to finish third in the primary. Pro-Templeton, third-party groups also pitched in more than $2 million in ads.

Even the GOP race's two bottom finishers, former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill and Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, combined to spend nearly $1.5 million.    

Smith, by contrast, spent $1.3 million in a primary where he handily beat two challengers.

His Democratic rivals, Charleston businessman Phil Noble and Florence attorney Marguerite Willis, had not submitted campaign disclosure reports for the period running from Memorial Day through June 30 by the Tuesday's deadline, according to online State Ethics Commission records.

In a sign of just how expensive campaigns have become, McMaster and Warren combined to raise nearly $1.7 million for their runoff — more than double what Nikki Haley and former U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett spent in their 2010 GOP runoff. 

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In addition to McMaster's $1.1 million, Warren gathered more than $660,000 for the runoff, including $200,000 in personal cash. Donors are allowed to give another round of contributions for a runoff in South Carolina. 

McMaster was not a typical incumbent: He was not elected to the job but promoted from lieutenant governor last year after Haley left to become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

McMaster is a career politician, a former attorney general and state party chairman, in a state where outsiders are popular. But a rally in Cayce held the day before the runoff that was headlined by the nation's popular political outsider, Trump, helped seal the primary for the governor.

The donor push left McMaster with $221,000 on hand as of June 30.

Smith, a state representative from Columbia, had about $128,000 in the bank after raising $316,000 since Memorial Day.

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Columbia Bureau Chief

Shain runs The Post and Courier's team based in South Carolina's capital city. He was editor of Free Times and has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Charlotte, Columbia and Myrtle Beach.