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Henry McMaster becomes SC's oldest serving governor: 'I'm glad to be living'

South Carolina Governor Inaugurated (copy) (copy)

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster raises his arms after being sworn in for his first full term at the South Carolina Statehouse in 2019. AP Photo/Sean Rayford 

COLUMBIA — Henry McMaster stood for two hours in a stage-side concert pit while the rock band Kiss performed Tuesday night in the Colonial Life Arena and, then after the show, he got his white button-down smeared with frontman Gene Simmons' fake blood.

It was an impressive night for South Carolina's oldest serving governor.

On Thursday, at age 72 years and 262 days, McMaster broke the mark set by James Byrnes when he left office in January 1955. 

"I'm glad to be living" was the Columbia Republican's first reaction to reaching the milestone.

Longevity runs in the family. McMaster's father retired from his law firm at age 99 after trying his last case at 93.

"I think as long as people stay healthy and stay involved and exercise and try to eat right, do all the things for good health, I think you're just about unlimited," the governor said. 

McMaster said getting into the governor's office later in life is helpful. 

"It's taken this long to understand what all is going on in the world and know what I am doing," he said. "To tell you the truth, I have learned a lot in a lot of different places."

He has been U.S. attorney, S.C. Republican Party chairman and state attorney general. McMaster was lieutenant governor before being promoted to governor in 2017 when Nikki Haley resigned to become the ambassador to the United Nations. He won a full four-year term in 2018.

McMaster is feeling a bit younger because he finally won the state's top job, Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said. McMaster ran for governor in 2010 and lost in the GOP primary.

"He always coveted the governor's mansion, and now he's gotten a hold of it," Huffmon said.

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McMaster says his secret is being happy with his family, friends and state. 

"I must be one of the happiest men alive," McMaster said. "(I'm) living in paradise. What could be better? I've got no complaints."  

McMaster is only the third governor to serve into his 70s among South Carolina's 117 chief executives dating back to 1670. The other was Robert Daniell, who owned what is now Daniel Island and was a colonial governor until 1717.

Being over 70 does not keep politicians out of office.

Republican President Donald Trump is 73, while leading 2020 Democratic presidential challengers, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, are 77 and 78, respectively.

South Carolina has some famous examples. Strom Thurmond served in the U.S. Senate until he was 100, while his counterpart, Fritz Hollings, was 83 when he retired.

Even with his new record in South Carolina, McMaster is the nation's fourth-oldest current governor. Alabama's Kay Ivey is the oldest at age 75. Seven governors are 70 or older.

"This is clearly the Baby Boomers getting their fingers deep into controlling power as much as possible and they are not not willing to give that up," Huffmon said of rise in older politicians. "Generation X is not large enough to take it away."

If McMaster remains governor through the two successive terms allowed under the state constitution, he will be four months shy of his 80th birthday when he leaves office in January 2027.

And that could happen. McMaster has already raised $714,000 for a 2022 re-election bid.

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