Two of Gov. Henry McMaster's Republican challengers suggested during a debate Wednesday he could face legal problems in the Statehouse corruption probe that could hand the governor's mansion to a Democrat for the first time in 20 years.
Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant and Mount Pleasant attorney Catherine Templeton said McMaster has potential issues because his longtime political consultant Richard Quinn was caught up in the investigation. McMaster is no longer working with Quinn, whose firm pleaded guilty to failing to register as a lobbyist, and the governor has not been a reported subject in the years-long investigation.
First, Bryant accused the Statehouse probe's special prosecutor — Democratic solicitor David Pascoe — of rigging the timing of his cases around the 2018 race.
"This may be a set-up to elect South Carolina's next governor as a Democrat," Bryant said during the debate at the College of Charleston that McMaster did not attend.
Templeton followed up by saying she wanted to ask McMaster if he could be indicted, like six other current and former Republican lawmakers, after winning the June 12 primary.
"I don't know why he's not here tonight; it's inexcusable," Templeton said near the empty podium left to mark McMaster's absence.
McMaster's campaign called the accusations "ludicrous" especially for a former state attorney general who was named to head an ethics reform task force by then-Gov. Nikki Haley and "who has dedicated his entire life to prosecuting and locking up criminals on behalf of the people of South Carolina."
McMaster was campaigning in North Myrtle Beach at a Horry County GOP meeting on Wednesday night. He also did not attend a Greenville Tea Party debate on Monday where moderators played recorded crickets and loud sighs in place of the governor's responses.
The governor will participate in two debates held by ETV and The Post and Courier at Clemson University on May 23 and at the University of South Carolina on June 5 because they are sanctioned by S.C. Republican Party, his campaign said.
On another issue from the debate Wednesday, McMaster's GOP rivals said more accountability in road repairs is needed after a cable broke along the Wando River bridge outside Charleston. The westbound lanes of Interstate 526, one of state's busiest arteries, will be closed for at least four weeks.
The candidates want the governor to have more control over the transportation agency to better watch spending.
"If the bricks of the Statehouse were crumbling, they wouldn't walk outside for the last 82 weeks and watch it crumble," Templeton said in reference to inspections of the bridge before the cable failure. "They would fix it."
Bryant said roads funding is "like a bucket with holes in it and it's running out of water; you fix the holes first before you pour more water in it."
The Republican hopefuls said they would add armed officers in schools in the wake of mass shootings, but they vowed to protect gun rights. Bryant said shootings take place in gun-free zones and not in places like gun clubs. He and Templeton said they back open carry of firearms.
"We shouldn't have to pay a fee for our constitutional right," Templeton said about the cost for concealed-weapons permits.
Former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill said people with potentially dangerous mental health issues need to be reported. Greenville businessman John Warren said schools need to be designed with one entrance with an armed guard.
In response to a question about the #MeToo movement on sexual assault and harassment, Bryant said lawmakers need to toughen criminal domestic violence laws, while Warren said he would work with police, faith-based groups and businesses to find solutions.
Templeton, the only woman in the GOP field, called the #MeToo movement a "dramatic liberal viral deal" where women bring up issues from decades ago "because it's popular." She says women should use the available resources with employers and law enforcement to report harassment and abuse.
Then she accused McMaster of doing nothing about domestic violence as attorney general. McMaster's campaign spokeswoman said McMaster doubled criminal domestic violence conviction rates during his eight years as the state's top prosecutor.
Asked about President Donald Trump's performance, they praised the commander-in-chief, who has endorsed McMaster.
Warren said he was the race's most Trump-like candidate because they both bring business experience to office. Templeton noted she was interviewed by Trump's transition team to be secretary of labor.
"He has brought joy back to this country," said McGill, who switched from the the Democratic Party to run for governor. "He has brought hope to those simply who have not had hope."
In a race where McMaster has been the chief target, Warren offered the one zinger aimed at another challenger during the rather hour-long staid debate, poking fun at Templeton's campaign catchphrase in his closing remarks.
"We don't need a buzzsaw," he said. "You can purchase one at Home Depot."