McMaster Smith

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster (left) and Democratic challenger James Smith have barnstormed the state in the final week of the race as they make their final pitches to voters. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

FORT MILL — Wanda Barnes said she doesn't always vote for Republicans, but after hearing Gov. Henry McMaster rally a crowd behind his vision of lower taxes and higher economic growth at Hobo's restaurant in one of the state's northernmost towns last week, she decided to cast her vote for the incumbent.

"I'm just trying to make sure South Carolina stays stable," said Barnes, 46, a human resources manager. "We have things going in the right direction now and we want it to continue that way."

Ruth Thompson couldn't disagree more.

After years of exasperation as she watched what she views as the state's failure to improve health care coverage and address rural needs, the 71-year-old retired manufacturing worker from Orangeburg predicted that Democratic challenger James Smith would make 2018 different.

"We've been stomped on and let down again and again," Thompson said after Smith fired up supporters Sunday night in St. Matthews. "It's finally time for a change, and this is the first time in a long time that I've felt in the atmosphere like it's going to happen."

As McMaster and Smith barnstormed across South Carolina over the final week of the governor's race, doggedly pursuing every last vote they could find — from Greenville to Summerville, Aiken to Aynor, Gaffney to Manning — the opponents offered starkly contrasting views of the state's trajectory.

Almost two years into the job as South Carolina's chief executive, McMaster points to sturdy economic figures as the primary reason voters should give him another four.

Borrowing the words of President Donald Trump, whom McMaster has championed since becoming one of the first statewide officials in the country to endorse his 2016 campaign, the governor declares that South Carolina is "winning, winning, winning."

"Look at the proof," McMaster said in Spartanburg, rattling off a series of promising statistics — including $8 billion of capital investment, 24,000 new jobs and the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years — as his closing argument in the race. "This is progress. South Carolina is going up, and you need to be a part of it."

Seeking to become the first Democrat elected to the governor's office since 1998, Smith contends the state is performing far below its potential — underpaying teachers, neglecting poorer communities and missing a prime opportunity to improve health care outcomes.

The reason South Carolina has employers looking for workers, Smith counters, is because the potential workforce is not receiving the education they need. And while businesses are creating new jobs, he says it's still not keeping up with migration to the state, wage growth has been stagnant and labor participation has decreased.

"If you like crumbling roads, if you like being 50th in education, 48th in health, 30th in best place to do business when our neighbors are 8th and 9th, and 6th in domestic violence, then vote for Henry because nothing's going to change," Smith said. "I think we deserve better. I think we deserve leadership that has a vision and can bring people together."

After a primary election that helped push the race to become the most expensive in state history, they continue to blanket the airwaves with ads and cover the ground with yard signs.

Their volunteers have knocked on thousands of doors and called potential voters in every corner of the state. And both candidates see record levels of in-person absentee voting as a sign that their messages are resonating at precisely the right moment.

McMaster vows steady conservatism

McMaster bus

Gov. Henry McMaster and his running mate, Pamela Evette, discuss their agenda en route from Gaffney to Spartanburg aboard their campaign bus. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

Despite a jovial vibe on his campaign bus and a comfortable lead in both public and private polls, McMaster and his running mate, Travelers Rest businesswoman Pamela Evette, insisted they would not grow complacent — and they urged supporters not to either.

"As soon as you let your guard down, that's when you lose something," McMaster said, attributing his mentality to one of his earliest bosses in politics: The late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond. "He always taught us, you always run like you're behind. You always try to get every vote." 

Each McMaster campaign stop featured a slew of local elected officials, serving as a symbol of GOP unity after a fractious primary just a few months ago and a reminder of the party's dominance over Palmetto State politics in recent years.

Many McMaster supporters said they didn't believe Democratic promises of bipartisanship. 

"All the Democrats are the same, they all want bigger government," said Robbie Earnhardt, 75, in Spartanburg. "South Carolina is conservative and we vote for conservatives."

Bombarded with criticism from Democrats, McMaster brushed it off as "the kind of empty rhetoric you expect from people who have nothing to add to the conversation." While he acknowledged South Carolina has work to do in education, he noted that the state is home to back-to-back national principals of the year in Chapin and Lexington.

"It's not all money. Money's a part of it, and I'd like to pay teachers more," McMaster said. "The problem most of the teachers I've spoken to cite is discipline in the classroom, or lack of it, and all these tests."

By continuing to push for lower taxes, McMaster promised that the state could achieve yet more economic growth.

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"The best is yet to come," he said at his final campaign stop Monday afternoon in Greenville.

Smith calls for new direction

Smith supporters

State Rep. James Smith, the Democratic candidate for governor, talks to supporters at a campaign event in St. Matthews. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

Smith's challenge in a historically difficult state for Democrats has been twofold: He needs to win over a sizable number of independents and moderate Republicans while simultaneously mobilizing a historic turnout from the Democratic base.

Campaigning in both traditionally conservative areas like the Upstate and more progressive areas with substantial minority populations, a key voting demographic for Democrats, Smith has cast himself as a "governor for all of us."

While several of his more rural campaign stops have drawn lighter crowds than McMaster, he said his decision to go to small towns that statewide candidates rarely visit with his running mate, state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell of Lancaster, has resulted in unprecedented energy.

"There's something happening out there that I don't think shows up in the polls, but it'll show up on Nov. 6," Smith said. "This will be the acid test for whether this is a red state, and I truly don't believe it is. This is a year where there's clearly the wind in our backs like it hasn't been before."

The 22-year state lawmaker has emphasized increasing teacher pay and expanding Medicaid as central tenets of his campaign. He also points to his support for legalizing medical cannabis as a clear-cut distinction between the two candidates, one of several reasons that Dawn Ridge, a massage therapist from West Columbia, said she supports him.

"There are so many people who die every day that don't get that opportunity, and we don't want to see people fleeing our state," said Ridge, 48.

Several of Smith's former military combat team members traveled the state with him Monday, including Gary Horn, a retired Air Force medic and Purple Heart recipient from York. Even though he usually votes for Republicans, Horn said he trusted Smith's claims of "leaving no one behind" because he saw it firsthand on the battlefield.

"Knowing James and serving with him in Afghanistan, he showed me then as a soldier what type of person he was," said Horn, 33, at Smith's Newberry stop. "So I know as a politician for the state of South Carolina, he's really going to make some changes. ... He'll speak up for those who don't have a voice."

On Tuesday, Smith said South Carolina will either make a bold statement or "reaffirm that we should not change anything."

"I've got my plans ready for the day after the election if we win," Smith said, "and it's not going to be sleeping late."

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.