Henry McMaster and James Smith

Henry McMaster (left) and James Smith

Florence did what few could — quiet a South Carolina political campaign.

Campaigning for governor was suspended as the hurricane made a beeline for the North Carolina-South Carolina coast last week.

Still, even a storm the size of both Carolinas could not separate the foes. They are working in the same building just like they do when the Legislature is in session. 

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster has been stationed in the state Emergency Operations Center in West Columbia, where he prepared for the storm that strolled inland through South Carolina at walking pace. He called for the evacuation of 750,000 people, reversed lanes of two major highways and opened dozens of shelters, while talking to most of the president's Cabinet.

Democratic state Rep. James Smith, a major in the S.C. National Guard, was among 3,600 soldiers activated. He also works in the Emergency Operations Center, where he helped oversee missions and coordinate with local authorities.

While they fended off the effects of Florence, they were not fighting each other. And that's going to hurt the challenger, Smith, more.

The campaign could be on hold for up to two weeks, giving less time for Smith to build name recognition that's half of McMaster's and raise money after gathering about one-third of the governor's primary haul. 

Plus, the governor gets to show he's on command every day, standing behind a podium with a group of state agency leaders to give updates on the storm.

Smith remains unseen, though he made a round of media interviews, including a live TV sitdown, after reporters started asking about his Guard activation early last week.

And he did so in uniform.

That raised some eyebrows. The military frowns on using the uniform for perceived political purposes.

Smith runs a standard disclaimer in his campaign ads featuring clips or photos of him in uniform, saying that his appearance does not imply any endorsement by the Army.

There were no disclaimers in his interviews, though Smith was careful to avoid campaign chatter.

"This is truly a time when politics is pushed aside in favor of ensuring that we are one team to serve the people of our state,” he told The Post and Courier's Jamie Lovegrove in an interview with his campaign spokesman seated with him.

In the middle of chatting with Lovegrove, Smith took a call from a superior with the Guard asking about a candidate giving a media interview at the operations center. 

Later in the week, Adjutant General Robert Livingston, the Republican-elected head of the guard, offered a reminder for his major.  

"James Smith is a soldier just like anybody else, and when we’re in uniform, we abide by the joint services ethics regulations, and that’s just how we all act," Livingston told The Post and Courier's Seanna Adcox. "And I expect every one of my soldiers to do that, and James is no different."

But Smith will not face any discipline, Livingston said.

"I’m not mad at him," the general said. "He’s a good soldier."

For McMaster and his quest to keep the seat he took over last year, the real test comes after Sunday when Florence leaves the state.

He needs to get an estimated 441,000 evacuees from Edisto Beach to Little River back home, bring help to damaged areas and manage expected flooding along several rivers from the massive rains.

And he needs to do it all smoothly just less than two months before Election Day.

Simple.

So far, griping has been mild about McMaster's pre-storm steps, though the storm did not slam the Charleston area, which saw its tourism business dry up for a week.

He chose a wider evacuation considering Florence had a path like a balloon caught adrift in the air.

At some point next week, the campaigning should resume. 

The race was not exactly electric when it stopped for Florence and will have a tough time gathering momentum as many South Carolinians focus on recovery from the storm and the flooding.

McMaster got an audition last week. Hurricanes and other natural disasters are about as gubernatorial as a weak-powered governor can get in South Carolina.

Smith was getting an early campaign boost in emphasizing his military background that included a combat tour in Afghanistan, but he needs as much of the race's final seven weeks as he can get to tell his story and make his case. 

Seems like Florence could cast a deciding vote on who stands behind the podium for the next natural disaster.

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Columbia Bureau Chief

Shain runs The Post and Courier's team based in South Carolina's capital city. He was editor of Free Times and has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Charlotte, Columbia and Myrtle Beach.