James smith (copy)

Democratic state Rep. James Smith lost to incumbent Republican Henry McMaster in the gubernatorial race. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

COLUMBIA — For years, national Democrats tried to convince state Rep. James Smith to run for South Carolina governor.

A decorated combat veteran with decades of legislative experience, Smith's resume had long been viewed as exactly the type of foundation from which a successful underdog bid could be launched.

But over the course of his year-long campaign, experienced Democratic strategists grew increasingly frustrated with Smith's dependence on retail politics, which led him to visit all of the state's 46 counties multiple times but never got him in front of large enough audiences to make a substantial difference.

While Smith had been involved in South Carolina politics since the late-1990s, his lack of name identification outside of his hometown of Columbia meant that he needed to become well-known to far more voters and offer a compelling, specific case for why McMaster should be fired.

In any election cycle, winning a historically red state like South Carolina is always going to be difficult for Democrats, and experts cautioned that even a near-perfect campaign may well have fallen short — particularly when polls found a majority of residents felt the state was on the right track and the economy was strong. Smith's 8-percent margin was narrower than state Sen. Vincent Sheheen's loss to then-Gov. Nikki Haley in 2014 but wider than their initial race in 2010.

Smith has expressed no regrets about how he ran his race. But in many other interviews, Democratic operatives and strategists bemoaned how he ignored expert advice at times, opting instead to rely on personal preferences and longtime friends over the tried-and-true mechanics of successful campaigns.

Most notably, in a year when Democratic donors proved themselves more than willing to open their wallets, Smith struggled to generate a threatening campaign war chest, a factor many Democrats attributed to a lack of time focused on fundraising.

His early fundraising deficiency drove away national organizations that could have boosted the campaign. As a result, Smith didn't have the resources in the closing weeks to launch the kind of all-out media blitz that he needed to become a household name and topple an incumbent.

"You just have to raise money in politics today, whether you like it or not," said Amanda Loveday, a former executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party. 

By contrast, Democrats pointed to Joe Cunningham, who won the Lowcountry's 1st Congressional District. They noted he spent many hours making calls needed to generate sufficient campaign resources early while also spending plenty of time out on the trail meeting voters.

The Smith campaign "had a lot of things money can't buy you: a really compelling candidate, someone who fit the state well, who had a story, had a record of reaching across the aisle," said College of Charleston political science professor Gibbs Knotts. "But Cunningham had the resources to really be present everywhere ... in a way Smith just couldn't."

More broadly, Democratic critics argued Smith's retail-heavy strategy felt more like a local campaign, where a few hundred voters can flip the outcome, than a statewide race that involves changing thousands of voters' minds across the state.

"This campaign looked like a Fairfield County probate judge's race," said Boyd Brown, a Democratic former state lawmaker. "You can't go into every little shop in all 46 counties, see five people and go on to the next one. That just doesn't work anymore."

Smith also did not inspire massive enthusiasm in the black community, a key demographic for successful Democratic candidates in the state.

Days before the election in Orangeburg, a student at the historically black S.C. State University stepped out of a sparse crowd and told Smith that she felt the lack of excitement there was because he had not done more to target minority voters and the issues they care about.

And experts faulted Smith for spending much of his early campaign messaging on his biography, which pollsters find rarely drives voters to the polls as much as issues do, even in the most impressive of cases.

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Geographically, Smith expended significant effort trying to close the gap in the historically conservative Upstate.

Despite signs of progress, he still lost Greenville County by 16 percent and Spartanburg County by 23 percent, short of the improvement needed to make up for McMaster's massive turnout in the Pee Dee.

Republicans praised McMaster for blocking out concerns that he was a weak candidate on paper who had lost gubernatorial bids before. They also lauded him for running a disciplined campaign, overseen by seasoned professionals like Tim Pearson, who led Nikki Haley's two governor wins, and Scott Farmer, who helped create U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham's political machine.

Unlike some other Republican candidates, such as state Rep. Katie Arrington in the 1st Congressional District or Kris Kobach in the Kansas governor's race, McMaster pivoted successfully from a Trump-centric appeal in the hard-fought GOP primary to a broader, positive economic message in the general.

Pearson praised the governor for assembling a team he trusted and then letting them go to work while he stayed focused on his day job. Smith, on the other hand, went through four campaign managers, giving his final team little time to pull together a cohesive operation.

Rob Godfrey, a former Haley aide, said no one deserves more credit for the win than McMaster himself.

McMaster "doesn't necessarily have the natural political gifts in terms of messaging and in terms of being a dynamic political talent that his two immediate predecessors have," said Godfrey, alluding to Haley and former Gov. Mark Sanford.

"But what he lacks in those political gifts, he more than makes up for in hard work down the stretch, likability and the potential to govern in a productive way."

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.