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Gov. Henry McMaster is OK with South Carolina holding a presidential primary if a challenger comes forward against President Donald Trump, partly because he expects a Trump blowout. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

The most influential Republican in South Carolina says he'd support the state GOP holding a presidential primary next year if a legitimate challenger against President Donald Trump came forward.

Gov. Henry McMaster remains one of Trump's staunchest allies but said he'd welcome Republicans hosting a primary as a means of growing the state's GOP majority and protecting South Carolina's first-in-the-south voting status.

McMaster isn't worried about giving potential Trump rivals TV time or stage opportunities.

He isn't worried the president is vulnerable or that Trump might have to spend money to campaign here.

Instead, McMaster said primaries are party-building tools.

There's also the fact that a ballot race would give Republicans some of the spotlight when Democrats make their 2020 picks here in February.

"I'm not encouraging anyone to run against the president," McMaster told Palmetto Politics. "But if anyone wants to run, then of course we should accommodate them with a primary."

McMaster knows something about party-building. He ran the state GOP as chairman from 1993-2002 — critical growth years for solidifying this red state.

"The South Carolina presidential primary is historic and it's important and it's become an institution, and we should maintain it and continue it," McMaster said.

Speculation has swirled among never-Trumpers over whether they can find a challenger or if it would be worth it. Former GOP Govs. William Weld of Massachusetts and John Kasich of Ohio are in the mix, as is current Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.

The chatter about holding a primary comes during a transitional time in the state GOP. County parties are in the process of electing new leaders ahead of the upcoming May 18 state convention. Support for Trump is sure to be a part of the process.

Recent polling shows there is backing for a primary. California-based Change Research found that two out of three Republican voters want a South Carolina GOP presidential primary in 2020 even if Trump is the only candidate.

But 19 percent said it would be bad precedent, reasoning that holding a primary would be “an opportunity for (Trump’s) opponents in the party to hurt him, and it will save the state money to just have a caucus instead.”

State taxpayers do pay the bulk of the primary cost. The State Election Commission needs $2.2 million to put on the 2020 Democratic primary. The budget would increase to $3.4 million if Republicans were to hold a primary around that same time, a commission spokesman said.  

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For the South Carolina GOP to hold a primary, it would be up to members of the executive committee to decide. Previously the body declined to hold primaries in 1984 (ahead of Ronald Reagan's second term) and 2000 (George W. Bush's second), but did host one in 1992 when upstart Pat Buchanan challenged George H.W. Bush. 

State party Chairman Drew McKissick said a decision won't come until August or September, when the executive committee meets. They have to inform the Republican National Committee of their intent by Oct. 1.

McMaster, meanwhile, said he has no fear Trump would be in jeopardy here if a primary were held — a position backed by a Winthrop University Poll this month indicating 82 percent of Republican voters said they approve of Trump's job performance.

McMaster additionally said he doesn't see any reason to worry about Trump being embarrassed if he had to campaign in the Palmetto State.

"Listen, that man loves South Carolina," he said. "He's said so a thousand times. The people of South Carolina love him."

McMaster said more.

"I've got total confidence in Donald Trump and my support of him has been strong from the beginning; it is getting only stronger," he said.

"I didn't think it could possibly get any stronger, but it is."

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 843-937-5551. Follow him on Twitter at @skropf47.

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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