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Republican Gov. Henry McMaster and Democratic state Rep. James Smith meet in a South Carolina governor debate on Thursday, October 25, 2018 at Greenville Technical College. Lauren Petracca/Staff

GREENVILLE — For the final time before the Nov. 6 election, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster and Democrat James Smith squared off Thursday night, splitting on a host of issues that the winner of the governor's race will face.

In the second and last debate between the two top-of-the-ticket contenders, Smith, a state representative from Columbia, cast McMaster as "clearly the defender of the status quo" who puts politics over people.

McMaster called Smith a "liberal Democrat" who risks pushing away the large businesses that have come to the state in recent years.


As he has throughout his two years on the job, McMaster again called for lowering the state's taxes — a central tenet of his campaign — and said he is specifically planning to target a $52 million cut in the tax that businesses pay into the unemployment fund.

Countering McMaster's description of Smith as a tax-and-spend liberal, Smith said he has not proposed any new tax increases during his campaign for governor.

Smith pointed out all of the tax increases that have taken effect during his 22 years in the Statehouse were sponsored by Republicans, like the gradual 12-cent per gallon gas tax increase that passed last year over McMaster's veto.


Both candidates have called for all of the costs from the state's failed nuclear project to be returned to ratepayers, but they differed on which of them would be more likely to get it done.

"The bottom line is this: With Henry in charge, the system that is broken has not changed," Smith said, calling for more investment in alternative energy sources like solar.

Smith described McMaster as "the utilities' candidate," a label the governor assertively rejected.

"I'm the one that brought everything to light about the shenanigans going on, not only with SCE&G or SCANA but also Santee Cooper," McMaster said, adding that he always insisted ratepayers should not have to pay for the failed project.

McMaster chided Smith for leaving before the final vote on the nuclear rate cuts, though he apologized for claiming that Smith voted for the 2007 law that kick-started the nuclear project and put ratepayers on the hook for the costs — Smith was fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan at the time of the vote.

Planned Parenthood

In the most heated series of responses of the night, Smith lambasted McMaster for what he called "quite possibly one of the most despicable acts" he's done in the office — vetoing millions of dollars in family planning funds from the state budget to prevent a fraction of it from getting to Planned Parenthood and an executive order halting Medicaid payments to the group.

After the veto, McMaster directed the state health agency to use surplus money to continue funding any family planning groups that do not provide abortions.

Faced with lawsuits over the ban, the state has already been forced to pay more than $17,000 in fees to lawyers, a price that is expected to rise significantly in the coming months and could top what Planned Parenthood receives in reimbursements.

Asked whether those legal fees are worth it, McMaster unflinchingly stood by his pro-life beliefs: "What we have to gain are those beating hearts that are eliminated" by abortions, which he described as a "scourge" on the state.

Smith predicted the state will end up losing the case in court, potentially leading to taxpayers actually giving more money to Planned Parenthood to pay for their legal costs.


On issues like tariffs and the planned closure of a nuclear fuel facility at the Savannah River Site, Smith argued that McMaster's friendly relationship with President Donald Trump only helped him survive his GOP primary but hasn't helped the state.

McMaster shot back that his many meetings with top administration officials have helped him stop some tariffs from taking effect, like one that would have forced the closure of a TV manufacturer in Fairfield County. He said he remains hopeful about the nuclear fuel facility.

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Business problems

The candidates were asked whether voters should take into account problems both candidates have encountered with their personal businesses over the years, which were reported this week in The Post and Courier.

Asked if voters should judge him for the rundown conditions at his rental properties, McMaster noted that the apartments are still at 100 percent occupancy, which he argued must mean they're "nice properties." Many tenants are college students, whom McMaster said "act like college students" and break things. 

The Congaree Group, a company owned by Smith, lost its status as a service-disabled veteran-owned business earlier this year after the candidate failed to provide required documentation to inspectors.

Smith noted that he overcame the past issues upon appeal and was reinstated. In the most recent case, he said he chose not to cooperate with the inspection because he could not run the business while seeking statewide office and plans to shut it down if he wins the race.

Medical marijuana

Citing opposition from the state's top law enforcement officials and physicians' advocacy groups, McMaster said he remains opposed to legalizing medical marijuana until that changes.

Smith said he believes the science has been clear about potential benefits to some patients and the state "ought to make this resource available."

Lottery windfall

With South Carolina primed to receive almost $70 million in tax funds from the state's $1.5 billion lottery winner, Smith said he would look to putting the one-time cash into repairing infrastructure and completing deferred maintenance at schools around the state.

While McMaster said the state should not necessarily always spend money in a hurry, he said he'd like to split the lottery tax windfall evenly between reducing the state's pension debt and assisting residents who were caught up in the hurricanes and resulting floods that hit the Palmetto State this year.


Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.

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