COLUMBIA — Behind an improving economy and strong support for President Donald Trump, Henry McMaster was elected Tuesday to his first full four-year term in South Carolina’s governor office.
McMaster, who was promoted to governor in 2017, was rewarded for continuing a stream of economic development announcements, deftly handling hurricanes and maintaining his friendship with Trump, a popular figure among Republicans who dominate the state’s electorate.
McMaster defeated Democratic state Rep. James Smith by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent.
As expected, McMaster dominated the Republican-heavy Upstate region centered in Greenville and the retiree-rich areas around Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island.
He also took hold of Aiken near the Georgia border and Rock Hill near the North Carolina border. Smith won the Democratic strongholds in Columbia and Charleston.
The election marked the first time the governor was elected along with a running mate, a change voters approved in 2012. Travelers Rest businesswoman Pamela Evette was elected lieutenant governor.
McMaster’s election culminates nearly four decades in public service and political office, starting with his appointment as U.S. attorney for South Carolina under Ronald Reagan in 1981. The 71-year-old former state attorney general and lieutenant governor is the oldest South Carolina governor elected dating back to the Revolutionary War.
"Your support and confidence is truly humbling and inspirational," McMaster told supporters in Columbia. "That means good things, better things are on their way to South Carolina."
McMaster added that he wants to keep South Carolina a "safe place" for corporations to invest their fortunes and their stockholders' fortunes in economic development projects: "We're going to have economic growth and prosperity unlike anything we have ever seen."
While South Carolina covers 32,000 square miles, the 2018 governor race was decided between two Columbia lawyers who live 15 blocks apart.
And the campaign reflected that. It was neighborly with few tense moments — this was not one of those South Carolina elections that will be remembered for its nastiness or intensity.
McMaster and Smith are career politicians not known for being ruthless campaigners. Their ads did not attack each other and their two debates included few moments of combativeness.
McMaster, the first resident of South Carolina's capital city in 140 years to be elected governor, was rarely put on the defensive — a plus for an incumbent. And Hurricane Florence halted campaigning for a week in September, blunting Smith from building his case to voters.
That allowed the governor to ride the coattails of an improving national economy, saying that he could keep South Carolina winning by pushing to cut taxes.
Concerns were raised about McMaster, even within his own party.
He was a has-been who had lost as many statewide races as he had won. He couldn’t win over hardcore conservatives. He was friends with targets of a major corruption probe, the main source of attack by rivals in nasty GOP primary and runoff races.
But some major avenues of attack for Smith were cut off in the general election.
Smith spent 22 years in the Legislature and could not effectively smack McMaster for being a career politician, though he tried in debates.
Smith also could not strike at McMaster for his ties to a political consultant and lawmakers at the center of a Statehouse corruption probe because the Democrat is friends with a legislator who resigned after a guilty plea.
In conceding the race before more than 100 supporters in Columbia, Smith admitted name recognition proved a tough hurdle against McMaster, whom he urged to do more to improve the state's education and healthcare systems.
"We are not done yet, my friends," Smith said. "We cannot let these folks down."
Smith blushed when a supporter yelled for him to run again. As he took the stage, Smith praised his running mate, state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell of Lancaster, as someone who could lead in the future: "She can be governor, and a great governor for South Carolina. I know that."
McMaster capitalized on South Carolinians feeling good about the economy and their finances, according to a Winthrop University poll released last week. Nearly 75 percent of South Carolinians rated the state’s economy as good. More than 70 percent thought their own financial situation was improving.
McMaster made sure to secure those conservatives by pushing to abolish all funding through the state to abortion-provider Planned Parenthood, and a fighting for religious freedom by allowing a Greenville foster-care placement agency to serve Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and gay families.
Democrats were hoping for an upset because McMaster, running in his seventh statewide race, reached the governor's office through a promotion from lieutenant governor when Nikki Haley became the United Nations ambassador last year.
But Smith, 51, never captured much momentum.
Hoping to become the first Democrat elected governor in 20 years, Smith pitched himself as a uniter, a message speaking to the divisive midterm elections nationwide.
But this is a state that handed Trump a 14 percent win in the 2016 presidential election. McMaster was the nation’s first statewide politician to endorse the New York billionaire’s White House bid.
Smith has leaned on the experience from his combat deployment to Afghanistan and the state's need to raise its low national education and health rankings.
But he battled a lack of will among voters to fire McMaster after nearly two years and as well voters not knowing him. His final television ad was another one to introduce he and Norrell.
Smith tried selling his partnership with Norrell. But as a pair of lawyer-legislators, they seemed very similar and their constant campaigning together was seen as a waste of resources.
Smith did manage to nearly match McMaster in raising money for the general election, though their haul was a fraction of the 2010 race.
Haley and Democrat Vincent Sheheen gathered a combined $5.4 million for the general election eight years ago. Smith and McMaster raised $3.1 million with just two weeks before Election Day, reflecting the lack of competitiveness in the race for South Carolina’s chief executive.