Wilson Atwater

Attorney General Alan Wilson (left) and state Rep. Todd Atwater, R-Lexington, have traded plenty of barbs in the lead-up to their June 26 runoff in the GOP primary for South Carolina attorney general. File/John A. Carlos II/Jamie Lovegrove

WEST COLUMBIA — A pair of challengers spent months labeling the South Carolina attorney general as an establishment villain, regularly accusing him of doing more to enable political corruption in the state than to stop it.

The incumbent responded by saying he would not resort to such personal attacks — and then, often in the same sentence, went on to belittle his opponents as immature know-nothings with no serious legal experience.

Though it has flown largely under the radar, dwarfed by other highly competitive races for governor and Congress, the GOP primary for South Carolina attorney general has been one of the state's most contentious contests of 2018.

Now with the field whittled down to two candidates, Attorney General Alan Wilson is looking to lock up support from around the state while state Rep. Todd Atwater of Lexington gives one final push toward unseating the incumbent.

The heated rhetoric between the candidates may in part be attributable to the Palmetto State's crowded electoral environment this year, experts say.

"The oxygen's been taken out of the room with some of these other big races we've seen," said Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University. "When you feel your key message is being subsumed, you try to be louder to get people to pay attention and to get your opponent to respond."

After the primary, third-place finisher William Herlong of Greenville threw his support behind Atwater. Between the two of them, Atwater and Herlong combined to garner a slight majority in that first round.

Both Atwater and Herlong used similar messaging to highlight Wilson's connections to embattled political consultant Richard Quinn, who is now cooperating with the long-running Statehouse corruption probe after it ensnared his once-powerful firm.

Atwater often mentions Wilson's unsuccessful attempt to wrestle back control of the probe from special prosecutor David Pascoe, as well as his decision to continue hiring members of the Quinn family for his campaign.

"He claims to be the only prosecutor in the race, but he’s also the only one who’s undermined the rule of law and who has violated the public trust," Atwater said.

What Atwater lacks in prosecutorial experience, he argues he makes up for in leadership qualities. In an added jab at Wilson, who initially failed the bar exam, Atwater notes that he passed it on the first try and has since handled complex legal issues in 26 years as an attorney.

"The attorney general has 300 staff people that are experts in their field, and his job is to lead them and direct them," Atwater said. "It’s an executive position that needs leadership and integrity. That’s what I have that Alan Wilson does not."

Atwater has faced ethical questions of his own for voting on several bills supported by the South Carolina Medical Association, while he was the physician advocacy group's top executive.

Compounding Atwater's challenge, Wilson has racked up endorsements from all over key conservative battlegrounds in state, including from many sheriffs and solicitors — the type of officials that deal with the attorney general's office most often.

The incumbent has also enjoyed the support of the national Republican Association of Attorneys General, where he maintains deep ties. Those relationships helped him to bring Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, a regular figure on Fox News, to campaign with him across the state days before the primary.

Even in Lexington County, the shared home turf of both remaining candidates, Sheriff Jay Koon and some of Atwater's own colleagues in the S.C. House have endorsed Wilson. In the first round, Wilson won about 55 percent in Lexington and 58 percent in Richland County.

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"The people of the Midlands, who know all the candidates the best, overwhelmingly understood and understand that we want a prosecutor," Wilson said.

Up in Herlong's neck of the woods, every Upstate sheriff has also endorsed Wilson. But Atwater dismissed the endorsements as nothing more than powerful people circling the wagons around each other. 

"He's an establishment protector and all these people are a part of the establishment," Atwater said. "They don't want the Band-Aid ripped off because they know that if I'm attorney general, I'm going to look into what they're doing. They know with Alan he's not going to do that."

While he would not name names, Atwater said he has spoken privately to some of the sheriffs and solicitors backing Wilson and they complained that they don't get the support they need from the attorney general but don't want to upset the official who oversees them.

Wilson responded that the sheriffs support him because he "has stood with law enforcement to put criminals and corrupt politicians away."

"It's despicable that because Todd doesn't have support in the law enforcement community, he's resorted to attacking them," Wilson said. "This is not who we need representing the law enforcement community."

The runoff is June 26. Polls are open statewide 7 a.m.-7 p.m.

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.