COLUMBIA, S.C. — The time has come for South Carolina voters to decide if they will give Gov. Henry McMaster a full term in the office he's held for nearly two years, as he goes head-to-head Tuesday with Democratic state Rep. James Smith in a race that, in a way, also tests the mettle of President Donald Trump in the state.
Polls opened Tuesday morning and will close at 7 p.m. as South Carolina picks which candidate will lead the state for the next four years.
The contest is also a test for Trump, who is backing McMaster and has campaigned for him in the state, which he carried easily in 2016. McMaster has been a loyal supporter of the president, backing his candidacy in early 2016, much to the surprise of some of McMaster's closest and longest-term advisers. McMaster, then lieutenant governor, was the first statewide-elected official in the country to endorse Trump.
A recent Winthrop University poll showed Trump with a 44 percent approval rating in the state, higher than his mark nationally.
McMaster's own contest is the election that was supposed to be wide open but turned into a situation that allowed McMaster to run as an incumbent, albeit an unelected one. McMaster became governor early last year when Trump tapped Nikki Haley as his Ambassador to the United Nations, creating an opening for the then-lieutenant governor to ascend to the state's top job.
South Carolina hasn't elected a Democrat as its governor in 20 years. This is the first election in which South Carolina elects its governor and lieutenant governor on a ticket. Both McMaster and Smith have chosen women as their running mates, and either one would become the second woman in state history elected to the office.
McMaster, 71, served two terms as South Carolina's attorney general and previously led the state's Republican Party. He lost a previous gubernatorial bid, coming in third in a four-way GOP primary in 2010 to Haley. Helping with her transition and on several issues including ethics reform, McMaster was elected lieutenant governor in 2014, which positioned him to take over a few years later.
Although his new position allowed him the mantle of running as an incumbent, McMaster drew four Republican challengers for this year's primary election, forcing him to fend off criticism he hadn't done enough to justify a full term in office. Forced into a runoff, McMaster ultimately defeated businessman John Warren, who has since endorsed his candidacy.
Smith, 51, has represented the Columbia area in the state Legislature for more than 20 years. The attorney was a JAG officer in the US Army Reserve and South Carolina Army National Guard but resigned his commission after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to enlist in the infantry, ultimately serving in Afghanistan.
In this race, he has backing from former Vice President Joe Biden, who recorded a video for Smith's candidacy and appeared at a fundraiser for him last month.
Including primaries on both sides, this year's governor contest has been South Carolina's priciest statewide election to date. McMaster raised more than $7.3 million this year and spent more than $6.7 million overall, including in the primary and runoff.
Smith raised nearly $2.9 million and spent more than $2.5 million to win his three-way primary outright.
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