COLUMBIA — On the campaign trail last year, Henry McMaster called becoming governor the greatest moment of his life — something he has worked toward since he was U.S. Attorney for South Carolina under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
The Columbia Republican lawyer finally reached that goal with a promotion two years ago after Nikki Haley resigned to become United Nations ambassador. But campaign rivals questioned how he was handed the governor's office.
That made winning last year's election so important — McMaster had earned the seat he'd sought for years.
"He has devoted his life to public service," said Rob Godfrey, a top aide to McMaster's 2010 governor campaign who later joined Haley's team. "(Wednesday's) inauguration will be the crowning moment of that career."
McMaster will be inaugurated Wednesday during an 11 a.m. ceremony featuring all living former governors, with the exception of 97-year-old Fritz Hollings.
McMaster is expected to offer a vision of helping rural areas and bolstering education in his address. The governor did not take questions Tuesday as he visited the inauguration stand set up on the south side of the Statehouse.
Heading into his first full term, McMaster is unique among Palmetto State leaders. At 71, he's the oldest South Carolina governor elected dating back to the Revolutionary War, and he is the first governor from the Columbia area elected since 1903 (based on birthplace) or 1876 (based on residence).
This comes after McMaster created a niche for himself over the past three decades as a fixture in South Carolina politics.
After leaving as U.S. attorney, he ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate and lieutenant governor, became the state Republican party chairman, won two terms as state attorney general, lost a bid for governor and scored a spot as lieutenant governor.
Former GOP Party Chairman Katon Dawson said McMaster has been around so long that he recalls their conversations "when it was unthinkable that we would have a Republican governor."
After a century of Democratic control in the state's top post, Republicans have accounted for six of the past eight governors.
And McMaster could end up being like no other governor in state history.
If he is re-elected in 2022 and serves two full four-year terms, McMaster would become South Carolina's longest serving governor by holding the office for nearly 10 years. Governors are limited to running for two terms, but McMaster's promotion could provide him some extra time in the Statehouse.
His inauguration will feature touches of a governor coming from Columbia, including having the morning prayer service at his own church, First Presbyterian, rather than at the traditional location of Trinity Episcopal, across the street from the Statehouse.
After the inauguration ceremony, McMaster will hold an open house at the Governor's Mansion from 2-4 p.m., then attend an evening ball at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.