The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Dominoes Start Falling in South Carolina GOP Politics

In response to Gen. Abizaid


As noted in today’s Jolt, Trump’s selection of Nikki Haley is almost certain to elevate Lieutenant Governor Henry McMaster to governor, but there are still a lot of falling dominoes.

The 69-year-old lieutenant governor has a famous name in South Carolina politics; his father was attorney and former State Representative John Gregg McMaster. He has pretty impeccable conservative credentials: a U.S. Army JAG from 1969 to 1975, worked as a legislative assistant to Sen. Strom Thurmond from 1973 to 1974, worked in private practice and in 1981 he was the first US Attorney appointed by President Reagan. He served in this position until 1985. four years as U.S. Attorney for South Carolina. McMaster served eight years as Attorney General of South Carolina.

McMaster ran for governor in 2010, and competed with Haley in the primary, and came in third. The two campaigns never got that heated against each other, and he endorsed her after the primary. In office since then, the pair were rarely at odds until this year, when they publicly disagreed about endorsing three longtime Republican state senators.

For a while, it appeared McMaster was interviewing for a role in the Trump administration as well:

McMaster said he has been speaking with the Trump transition team about becoming attorney general. McMaster was a U.S. attorney and the elected state attorney general before becoming lieutenant governor.

With the announcement of Jeff Sessions, McMaster won’t be getting that role. If McMaster also leaves his position to work in some other role in the Trump administration, there would be genuine uncertainty about who would become the next governor:

Senate President Pro Tempore Leatherman would rise to the governor’s office. If Leatherman took the post, there would be a Senate election for a new president pro tempore, who then would rise to lieutenant governor.

However, many say Leatherman holds more power now than he would as governor so he could resign to avoid becoming governor. That means senators would elect a new pro tempore to become governor and another to become lieutenant governor.

If McMaster stays, the next big question is who becomes the next lieutenant governor, a position that doesn’t seem to be all that appealing, unless you see it as a stepping stone to being governor:

Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman is next in line, but the 85-year-old Florence Republican could step down from the leadership role to remain the state’s most powerful lawmaker as chair of several finance panels.

The lieutenant governor has much less influence in a state where power lies in the Legislature.

State Sen. John Courson, R-Columbia, stepped down as Senate president pro tempore in 2014 to avoid becoming lieutenant governor after Glenn McConnell was hired as president of the College of Charleston. Leatherman took the Senate’s top spot after then-Sen. Yancey McGill, D-Kingstree, agreed to become lieutenant governor.

Even if McMaster runs as a semi-incumbent, the 2018 South Carolina Republican gubernatorial primary could be a real free-for-all, with about a dozen lawmakers and public figures mentioned as possible candidates.