Gov. Henry McMaster will begin what is expected to be a historic final term in South Carolina when he is sworn into office on Wednesday morning.
Already the oldest person to hold his position, McMaster will become the longest-serving chief executive South Carolina has had upon completion of his second full term. The Republican will have logged an unprecedented 10 years in office after finishing the final two years of former Gov. Nikki Haley’s tenure.
McMaster acknowledged the history surrounding his inauguration when asked last Friday for any reflections.
“I’ve heard people say that, but I’ve been focusing on what we need to do,” McMaster told reporters. “We have enormous opportunity.”
“Ten years from now, where will be? A hundred years from now, what will we look like?” he added. “Those are the kinds of questions that I’m asking.”
The longevity contrasts with recent occupants who ascended to national profiles in the governor’s mansion on their way to other posts.
McMaster’s predecessors both assumed federal office and have considered or pursued the White House. Haley resigned in 2017 to join then-President Donald Trump’s administration as United Nations ambassador and is mulling a possible 2024 run. Mark Sanford launched an unsuccessful primary challenge to Trump in 2020 after his eight years as governor were bookended by separate three-term stints in U.S. Congress.
“He was not using South Carolina as a political stepping stone,” said Bob McAlister, a Columbia-area public relations consultant who has supported McMaster. “He has always said that the governorship was his calling and it’s what he wanted to do.”
McMaster handily defeated Democratic challenger Joe Cunningham this past November with the message that he would continue to improve the state’s booming economy. He won the race by over 17 percentage points. That figure doubled the margin of his previous go-around and marked the largest victory in a South Carolina gubernatorial election in over three decades. As he enters his final term, McMaster’s budget proposal seeks to build upon last year’s record capital investment totals and the state’s fast-growing population.
But one of McMaster’s top priorities entering office recently suffered a blow. After the South Carolina Supreme Court last Thursday struck down the state’s six-week abortion ban, the governor vowed he would work with lawmakers to correct what he called the justices’ “error.”
The veteran of South Carolina politics has not come without his surprises. As lieutenant governor, McMaster shocked the state’s GOP establishment in 2016 when he became the first statewide officeholder to endorse Trump’s presidential candidacy. McMaster has already endorsed Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign, announcing his support just hours after the former president launched his bid.
That political deftness was again displayed in 2010 when he befriended Haley after she won a Republican gubernatorial primary that saw McMaster place third.
The governor’s “gentlemanly” approach has taken him far, according to McAlister, who noted that McMaster has repaired the chief executive’s relationship with the General Assembly.
“I think that accounts for a lot of his success in a political time when everybody is screaming and hollering at each other,” McAlister said. “The governor doesn’t scream and holler.”
His political career has spanned several generations of Republican leaders and witnessed the GOP takeover of South Carolina government. His online biography notes that in 1981 he became the first U.S. attorney appointed by then-President Ronald Reagan. He lost the 1986 U.S. Senate race to incumbent incumbent Sen. Fritz Hollings, the last Democrat to represent the state in U.S. Senate.
He has since chaired the South Carolina Republican Party and was twice elected the state’s attorney general.
McMaster, 75, is the 3rd oldest governor in the U.S. behind Alabama’s Kay Ivey, 78, and Ohio’s Mike DeWine, 76. McMaster, who was the first Columbia native to serve as governor in a century, began inauguration day with a prayer service at First Presbyterian Church, where he regularly attends.
James Pollard is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
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