A South Carolina Democrat’s Notes After Watching the Republican Primary

The Least Bad Option

There is something oddly liberating about watching a political primary race in which you have absolutely no vested stake. As a Democrat in South Carolina, I already know without question that I will be voting for whoever wins the Democratic primary to be governor of the state, regardless of how the Republican primary plays out.

I also know that if history is any guide, South Carolina’s ongoing status as a deep red state means that my preferred candidate probably will not win the general election in November. But that does not prevent me from having a passing, morbid curiosity in seeing the depths to which the Republican candidates will go to both sling mud at one another and try to show primary voters how conservative they are.

This was what happened at the recent Republican gubernatorial debate on June 5 and what continues to happen in television and radio commercials leading up to the Republican primary. The candidates continue to churn out “red meat,” or well-worn tropes supporting gun rights, preserving the rights of the unborn, and bashing illegal immigrants. Apparently, polling told each of them that this would appeal to right-wing voters (which is probably true). Although the same themes were used by Donald Trump to convincingly win the South Carolina presidential primary, they seem maddeningly redundant when repeated ad nauseam during a state election campaign.

My dispassionate interest in the Republican primary seems akin to how a vegan must feel at a fine steak house. Candidates dole out plate after plate of “red meat,” none of which seems remotely appealing. But for die-hard conservative carnivores in South Carolina, they can’t help but to eat it up. While the five candidates sounded remarkably similar on the hot button issues, let’s compare how the frontrunners ran their campaigns in particular.

McMaster seems in every way to represent South Carolina’s good old boy system. Although he has the benefit of being an early and vocal advocate for President Donald Trump, everything else about him cries establishment Republican. He has previously served as the state’s lieutenant governor, attorney general, and chairman of the state Republican Party. And now that he’s served as governor after former Gov. Nikki Haley was called up to the big leagues, McMaster is the candidate who has been there and done that. There is absolutely no reason to believe that he will do anything different if elected governor than what he is doing now.

By contrast, self-described “conservative buzzsaw” Catherine Templeton is anything but an establishment Republican. The closest thing to a protest candidate in the race, her candidacy was born of her controversial time spent as the director of the Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation and the Department of Health and Environmental Control. She campaigns as an outsider willing to take on the system, but, along with a brief stint at the State Ports Authority, cycling through three state agencies in a few years hardly qualifies her as such.

Templeton’s commercials win her the award for “most likely to pander to the Republican base.” The sight of her shooting a rattlesnake with a revolver comes perilously close to self-parody, and her claims that she somehow took on the Obama administration and won are similarly laughable. Signaling that she was anti-Obama will surely win her some primary votes, but being a shill for conservative orthodoxy falls far short of suggesting why she deserves to be elected as the next governor of South Carolina.

Oddly enough, John Warren comes across as the real outsider and most genuine candidate in the race. A Greenville businessman, he also is a former Marine, war veteran, and has the least political mileage of the frontrunners. Recent polls show him closing to within the margin of error just behind Templeton. He also seems to actually believe what he says in his campaign ads rather than simply trying to be South Carolina’s Donald Trump. (This is not necessarily a good thing.) Still, there is something oddly refreshing about his candidacy which is conspicuously absent from the other two.

None of this may actually matter. Trump has signaled his support for the incumbent governor, primarily because McMaster supported him early in his primary presidential campaign. In a state where Trump’s popularity is at an all-time high, this endorsement may well be the deciding factor in the race. And yet another reason I’ll be voting Democrat.

This article, written by Dwayne Green, first appeared in the Charleston City Paper on June 13, 2018. View Dwayne’s full archive of articles at the Charleston City Paper as a guest columnist. Photo Credit – Jeff Turner

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