COLUMBIA — The South Carolina GOP primary is nine months away, but for Gov. Henry McMaster, a campaign boost Monday from President Donald Trump cannot come a moment too soon.
The president is scheduled to arrive in Greenville to headline a fundraiser for McMaster just days after the latest campaign finance reports showed the incumbent Republican losing ground in the money race to political newcomer Catherine Templeton.
Templeton raised $603,000 in the latest fundraising quarter to McMaster's $568,000 with their respective campaign coffers each having nearly $1.9 million.
The Lowcountry labor attorney and former director of two state agencies celebrated the news in an email to supporters, characterizing her record-breaking totals for a GOP primary challenger in the state as "a loud message to the good ol' boys."
As the first statewide politician in the country to endorse Trump's 2016 campaign, McMaster was always expected to earn the support from a president who puts a high premium on loyalty.
"The question was never whether or not Trump was going to come in for Henry," said Chip Felkel, a South Carolina GOP strategist. "The question is whether at some point he comes back."
In the early months of a statewide race, a difference of a few thousand dollars might not have much functional impact. But as College of Charleston political science professor Gibbs Knotts explains, the figures serve as a signal to observers about the strength of the campaigns, known as the "invisible primary."
"Before anybody goes to the voting booth, it's something people can track as an indication of how serious the candidate is," Gibbs said.
The Greenville fundraiser is expected to be closed to reporters, a White House decision that somewhat undercuts McMaster's ability to milk the joint appearance with the president with free media.
But voters can expect to see photos of the the governor greeting the president at the airport and standing on stage with Trump plastered all over McMaster's campaign ads for months to come.
Similar Trump-headlined fundraisers for other candidates in the past have raised more than $1 million. With a ticket price of $250 and more than 1,000 people expected to attend, McMaster's event is guaranteed to bring in at least $250,000 — but many donors contribute far more than the minimum. The state limit is $3,500 for the primary.
The decision to hold the fundraiser in Greenville, the heart of South Carolina's conservative base, is no accident.
Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, a pharmacist from Anderson, has built a reputation as a social conservative crusader over years in politics. Templeton has concentrated much of her fundraising in the Upstate and touted her pro-life beliefs, posting on Facebook last week that, "All life is precious, no matter how small. Our children are God’s children to protect. As Governor, I will be a strong advocate for life."
But McMaster, a Columbia lawyer who was the state attorney general, has worked to ensure nobody in the state's evangelical base can doubt his credentials.
The governor has signed an executive order cutting off all public money in the state from health care providers affiliated with abortion clinics. He's requested a halt to refugee resettlement from countries in Trump's travel ban. And he's made repeated trips to the Upstate, including a stop at Bob Jones University.
“I wouldn’t be overly surprised if Henry got re-baptized in Greenville by the time this campaign is over," quipped Josh Kimbrell, the chairman of the Spartanburg County GOP and a conservative radio talk show host.
But if McMaster has exerted great effort reminding GOP voters of his Christian faith, he has worked even harder to make sure they don't forget his connection to Trump.
The governor regularly inserts his early endorsement of Trump into stump speeches and public appearances as a pointed reminder of his commitment to the cause. When the governor decided to endorse U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s health care bill last month, for example, he conspicuously chose to do so in a letter to Trump rather than a statement supporting his home-state senator.
“I stood proudly with you in the beginning in your determined efforts to ‘Make America Great Again,’” McMaster wrote, “and I still do.”
Now McMaster will be able to tell voters, without any qualms, that Trump stands with him, too.
The impact of Trump’s imprimatur on a GOP campaign appeared to demonstrate its limits last month, when his pick in the Alabama Senate GOP primary — Sen. Luther Strange — lost to theocratic firebrand Judge Roy Moore. McMaster’s critics from both the right and the left are quick to make a connection.
“For a guy who hates losers, he sure seems to be siding with a lot of them," said South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson of Trump.
Tim Pearson, McMaster's chief campaign strategist, brushes off that criticism. The Alabama race was more of a referendum on the failures of Senate Republicans, he said, and anyone who doubts the president will impact a gubernatorial race in a state where Trump remains popular with the GOP base does so "at their own peril."
"There's not a single one of our opponents who wouldn't do backflips to have the president's support," Pearson said.
Templeton has tried to channel one of Trump's signature slogans, "drain the swamp," into her own campaign message, switching up Trump's ire at Washington for the Columbia political class.
Nate Leupp, Greenville County GOP chairman, said he thinks Trump's visit should help McMaster with fundraising, but there's no guarantee that Trump voters will cast ballots for the governor. Leupp expects Trump voters to start with McMaster as their choice but he doesn't think they will all stick with one hopeful in the governor's race — and some might not vote at all.
"They came out for Trump but I’m not sure they're interested in state or local politics," Leupp said. The 2016 election "may be the end of their political involvement."