Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call; Meg Kinnard/AP Photo/CQ-Roll Call/AP Photo
In deep-red South Carolina, where voters haven’t elected a Democratic governor in nearly 25 years, Democrats in Tuesday’s ballot aren’t trying to appeal to centrists or moderates — but instead, to push priorities more familiar to blue state voters.
Last week, Vice President Kamala Harris appeared at a party fundraiser in Columbia, South Carolina, and got voters and candidates excited. “Let’s fight to get Democrats up and down state ballots,” she said.
Defeating incumbent Republican Governor Henry McMaster in November would be an effort, however. McMaster remains popular in the state where Republicans control both houses of the state legislature, both U.S. Senate seats and six of seven congressional seats.
Five candidates, including former Congressman Joe Cunningham and State Senator Mia McLeod, are in the Democratic primary ballot on Tuesday.
As for McMaster, the governor faces little of a primary challenge and has significantly outpaced his two most prominent Democratic opponents so far.
McMaster was the state’s lieutenant governor and assumed the governorship in early 2017 after former President Donald Trump nominated the then governor. Nikki Haley as Ambassador to the United Nations.
During Friday’s debate, McLeod said South Carolina Democrats need to stop “being scared” and stop portraying themselves as “Republican elites.” And when it comes to issues, whether it’s minimum wage, climate change or marijuana legalization, they don’t seem to be trying to pick up McMaster loyalists.
This year, Governor McMaster quietly signed a bill that bars transgender students from playing women’s or women’s sports.
During Friday’s debate, Cunningham said the issue should be handled with “compassion” and “empathy”.
“You think McMaster,” he said, “what a great man to pick on little kids.”
“It’s amazing to me that we have a Republican majority that finds so much time to prioritize nonsensical bills,” McLeod said of the law. “I know what it’s like to be discriminated against.”
Medicaid expansion is one of the biggest issues for Democrats. South Carolina is one of 12 states — most of which are in the South — that has not extended Medicaid to individuals up to 138% of the federal poverty level, or $17,774 for an individual in 2021. Doing so in South Carolina would ensure about 100,000 additional people, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Republicans, including Governor McMaster, have spent years resisting expansion. “Expanding Medicaid would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars every year,” the governor wrote on Twitter last year, “and I will fight every effort to do so here.”
South Carolina has a six-week abortion ban waiting in the wings if Roe vs. Wade is overturned. After receiving McMaster’s signature, the law was quickly blocked in federal court and awaits a ruling from the United States Supreme Court.
After draft notice showing judges leaning back deer leaked from high court last month, The Democrats have decided to make abortion a central issue in their campaigns in South Carolina. Cunningham posted this announcement. “The stakes in this election couldn’t be higher,” he says, “because these health care decisions should be made between women and their doctors.”
For her part, McLeod’s campaign website points to the fact that she introduced something known as “The Viagra Bill” to “expose the hypocrisy of the ‘war on women.’ of the legislature”. She goes on to say, “The attack on reproductive rights is dangerous, socially and economically.”
The primary election comes seven years — almost to the day — after nine black worshipers were killed by a domestic terrorist in Charleston in a racially motivated mass murder.
Gun rights remain a key campaign issue for McMaster, which is endorsed by the National Rifle Association. Last year, the governor signed a law allowing South Carolina to openly carry their guns, even with some hesitation from law enforcement.
During Friday’s debate, McLeod said South Carolina doesn’t have to “reinvent the wheel” when it comes to guns. She said AR-15s should not be in civilian hands and that she believes in so-called “red flag” laws.
“Our gun violence is out of control,” Cunningham said during the debate, touting his record of helping pass gun control legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Acacia Squires is NPR’s state government editor.