James Smith Bob Guild

South Carolina Sierra Club conservation chair Bob Guild, right, announced Thursday at Columbia's Riverfront Park that the group is endorsing state Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, in the 2018 governor's race. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

COLUMBIA — The South Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club has endorsed Democrat state Rep. James Smith for governor — the first time in its 40-year history it has backed a candidate before the primary elections.

With more than 7,000 members and tens of thousands more contributors, the S.C. Sierra Club is the largest environmental advocacy group in the state.

The chapter's board voted unanimously to back Smith, D-Columbia, an unprecedented step this early in a statewide election.

Bob Guild, the chapter's conservation chair, described the decision as a "no-brainer," citing Smith's track record of supporting environmental causes during his 21-year career in the Legislature. 

"The choices are really clear," Guild said Thursday. "That's the real reason why it's an easy decision for Sierra Club to endorse James, even this early in the game. We want everybody to understand he's a champion and nobody is going to come on the scene who's going to compete with his record."

Smith said his passion for conservation began at an early age, when his father used to bring him to the banks of the Congaree River.

"It was fundamentally the lessons that he taught me growing up that it's about leaving this place better than we found it," Smith said. 

Two other Democrats are running against Smith in the June 12 primary: Florence attorney Marguerite Willis and Charleston businessman Phil Noble. Five Republicans have entered the race, including incumbent Gov. Henry McMaster.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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