Henry McMaster and James Smith (copy)

Henry McMaster (left) and James Smith

COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster and his Democratic challenger, state Rep. James Smith, suspended their campaigns Monday until further notice as the state continued preparations for Hurricane Florence.

"The governor is focused on preparing the state for the possible impact of this hurricane, and we encourage all South Carolinians to take the appropriate steps to stay safe," McMaster campaign spokeswoman Caroline Anderegg said.

In a Monday afternoon news conference, McMaster ordered evacuations along South Carolina's entire 187-mile coastline starting at noon Tuesday.

Smith initially waited Monday morning to determine whether the hurricane would require a pause in the campaign, but by early afternoon opted to suspend his operations, too.

“This is a time to help our friends and neighbors get ready for this potential disaster any way we can, not for politics,” Smith said. “We urge each and every South Carolinian to take appropriate measures to stay safe.”

The impending hurricane promises to disrupt the traditional trajectory of the governor's race, which usually tends to pick up steam after Labor Day. It also offers a high-profile test of McMaster's leadership under pressure as he navigates the second hurricane that has threatened South Carolina in his two years on the job.

The Nov. 6 election is just more than eight weeks away.

Joe Cunningham, the Democrat running to replace U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Charleston, is suspending his campaign effective Tuesday morning and canceling three planned fundraisers this week, spokesman Tyler Jones said.

Cunningham's GOP opponent in South Carolina's 1st Congressional District, Summerville state Rep. Katie Arrington, also had to cancel three planned fundraisers on her respective calendar.

One of those events was going to be headlined by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, who had promised to campaign on her behalf after Arrington was seriously injured in a head-on collision after the GOP primary.

When asked whether Arrington would be suspending her campaign in the coming days, Arrington's campaign refused to use the term.

"We're going to continue to do everything we can do given the circumstances, while our focus is on ensuring the safety of family, friends and neighbors," said Michael Mulé, Arrington's campaign spokesman. 

Florence strengthened to a Category 4 hurricane Monday and is expected to continue to grow stronger in the days ahead. The latest forecasts suggest that damaging hurricane-force winds, life-threatening storm surge and freshwater flooding are likely along portions of the coasts of South Carolina and North Carolina.

As a major in the South Carolina National Guard, Smith may be called up to assist with the hurricane response, as he has in years past. Smith said he has been in touch with his command and is awaiting potential activation.

Smith opened the week with a news conference Monday morning about veterans issues, pledging to elevate the state's Division of Veterans' Affairs to a Cabinet-level agency if elected.

"This is critically important to show that we in South Carolina keep faith with our veterans and the great service that they have done for our state and for our nation," said Smith, a combat veteran himself who served in Afghanistan after 9/11.

Smith canceled a campaign fundraiser scheduled for Monday evening in Columbia.

As he oversaw state preparations for the hurricane over the weekend out of the S.C. Emergency Operations Center, McMaster already canceled a visit to Sea Island, Ga., where he had planned to attend a national Republican Governors Association event.

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.

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.