COLUMBIA — State Rep. Todd Atwater, R-Lexington, launched his campaign for South Carolina attorney general Wednesday challenging Republican incumbent Alan Wilson in the 2018 GOP primary.
In a news conference outside the Statehouse, the four-term lawmaker said he decided to run because the attorney general's postion "is the best office and the most important election in 2018."
"It's important because we have to address public corruption at its core, we have to address gangs, we have to address drug dealers and pill pushers," Atwater said. "And the attorney general's office is the one that can do the most for each of those and it's the one that can help us restore faith in our institutions and our government."
The Post and Courier first reported Atwater was eyeing a run for attorney general in October — the day after Wilson's name was mentioned by a prosecutor during a bond hearing for political consultant Richard Quinn and four current and former legislators tied to his Columbia-area firm. Quinn had been employed by Wilson in prior elections.
Quinn, long considered a political kingmaker in the state, was indicted in October on criminal conspiracy and illegal lobbying charges. He has maintained his innocence to the charges.
The challenge sets up a pitched intra-county battle between two prominent Lexington Republicans. Atwater said geographical proximity did not play into his thinking as he mulled a bid.
"I love my county, grew up here, but that has really nothing to do with this race," Atwater said.
Instead, Atwater said he was drawn to challenge Wilson because he believes the incumbent's connections to Quinn and extended battles with Statehouse corruption probe prosecutor David Pascoe have hindered his ability to do the job.
"Six indictments for public corruption coming out of this building right here," Atwater said as he pointed to the Statehouse. "And our attorney general can't be there because he has a conflict. I won't have a conflict. I'm going after this."
Atwater pledged to appoint seasoned prosecutors and investigators to a public corruption unit that he plans to create on his first day in office, warning elected officials at the highest levels that they will face increased scrutiny.
"We're going to stop this public corruption and we're going to hit it at it's core," Atwater said. "Whether you're a dogcatcher or you're the governor of South Carolina, you're on notice that the AG is paying attention and we're going to stop this."
Wilson's spokesman, Mark Knoop, said anyone is welcome to run but Wilson remains proud of the work his office has done and the way his staff has conducted themselves. He disputed Atwater's contention that the attorney general has been ineffective.
"Alan Wilson has a prolific record of defeating executive overreach in Washington, fighting for consumers and protecting South Carolinians by combating issues plaguing our state like human trafficking and domestic violence," Knoop said.
As the former top executive of the South Carolina Medical Association, a lobbyist principal with many issues before the Statehouse, Atwater has faced questions about his own ethical past since indicating his interest in challenging Wilson.
He insisted his connection to the group has never impacted his work as a lawmaker because he did not vote on bills that would affect doctors and the medical industry or take action to boost their interests in the Legislature. He checked with the state Ethics Commission to ensure he was complying with regulations, he said, and avoided creating any appearance of conflicts since taking office in 2010.
Opponents argue Atwater should have stepped down from the association when he took office, and Atwater said he expects the issue to be raised again throughout the race.
Greenville attorney William Herlong is the only other Republican who has said he also plans to run. Several other state lawmakers who were once considering a bid have since backed away.
No Democrats have entered the race.