COLUMBIA — Greenville businessman John Warren picked up endorsements from two former rivals in the South Carolina Republican governor's race in a merger of anti-establishment candidates who managed to keep Gov. Henry McMaster from winning the primary outright.
The endorsements from Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant and two-time state agency chief Catherine Templeton are not a huge surprise. All three campaigns were like-minded in pushing for state government reforms, ending corruption in Columbia and criticizing McMaster for being a career politician.
"What you are seeing is unification of the conservative part of the Republican Party," Warren told reporters Thursday.
Warren, a political newcomer who finished second in Tuesday's primary with 28 percent of the vote, is facing a tough June 26 runoff against McMaster, the choice of President Donald Trump. The governor received 42 percent support in the previous five-candidate field.
Templeton and Bryant combined to win 28 percent of primary votes while finishing third and fourth. Together, the trio of McMaster's top challengers accounted for nearly six out every 10 votes on Tuesday while spending a combined $8 million.
If many of their supporters come back for the runoff, it could put pressure on McMaster when he appears on a statewide ballot June 26, the sixth time in 16 years.
In the runoff, McMaster can count on how he dominated Warren outside of the GOP voter-rich Upstate. The election first-timer did edge the governor by about 2,000 votes in the Upstate while winning Greenville and Pickens counties.
Warren could benefit in the Upstate from Bryant, a former state senator who co-owns an Anderson pharmacy, and also the runoff for Republican Trey Gowdy's open seat in Congress in Greenville and Spartanburg counties that should draw a number of change-minded conservatives.
"I have been conservative activist all my life," Bryant told The Post and Courier on Thursday. "(Warren) will take on the trough feeders and restore integrity to state government and the taxpayers."
Templeton won four counties on primary day, including Beaufort, a hub for Republican retirees. She also did well in Aiken. The Mount Pleasant attorney was seen as McMaster's biggest challenger until Warren gained momentum in the final weeks of the race.
Templeton said both campaigns reached out to her on Wednesday seeking her endorsement. Warren traveled to Charleston to meet her.
Templeton praised Warren for having "fresh eyes" about fixing problems in state government like what Nikki Haley brought when she ran in 2010. She told reporters her campaign team could not find any major issues with Warren when they looked into his past.
"This gentleman is honorable," she said.
During the primary campaign, they all criticized McMaster for his ties to the Statehouse corruption probe that focused on the political dynasty built by his former longtime political consultant Richard Quinn.
Bryant mentioned Thursday that Warren would not invite someone like Quinn to the Governor's Mansion, which McMaster did right after he was sworn-in last year. Quinn was not indicted until months later. His consulting firm pleaded guilty to failing to file as a lobbyist. McMaster is not a reported target of the investigation.
Warren and Templeton also took swipes at each other as they fought for the second runoff spot.
Warren launched a webpage calling Templeton "conveniently conservative" after backing Democratic candidates. Templeton ran ads that said Warren was not conservative enough on gun rights and abortion, even suggesting he was pro-choice.
"I think during the campaign we were all fighting for conservatives, we were all fighting for our state, and that’s in the past," Warren told reporters Thursday. "It was less animosity and more passion for us wanting to get our views and and have an opportunity to make the runoff and run against Gov. McMaster."
Warren is the youngest candidate in the race at age 39 and the one who entered the latest, just four months ago. He was unknown even around his hometown.
But he spent $3 million of his own money in the campaign to hire pollsters and strategists used by Trump in his 2016 presidential run and developed a brand promoting him as an conservative businessman and Marine. The straightforward message appealed to voters who wanted a new face in the Governor's Mansion.
While Warren likes to say he's the candidate most like Trump in the race because he owns a business, it's McMaster who has the president's endorsement.
McMaster is reaping the rewards from being the first statewide elected official to back Trump's 2016 presidential bid when he was lieutenant governor.
Trump flew to Greenville for a campaign fundraiser last year after McMaster was promoted to governor with Haley's departure to the United Nations. Trump also tweeted support for McMaster over the weekend.
"John Warren is wrong when he says that South Carolina is losing and it doesn't come as much of a surprise that Gov. McMaster's challengers, who don't understand that our state is headed in the right direction, support him," McMaster spokeswoman Caroline Anderegg said.
The winner of the runoff will meet Democratic primary winner state Rep. James Smith of Columbia in the November election.
Smith won the endorsement from one of his challengers, Charleston technology consultant Phil Noble.
Jamie Lovegrove contributed to this report.