COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Former U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham won the Democratic nomination for governor Tuesday, setting up a November showdown with Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who easily defeated his opponent in the primary.
Cunningham has touted the fact that he is the only Democrat in the state over the past decade to flip a Republican seat in a major race, a win that got him one term in the U.S. House. He has made big promises, including legalizing recreational marijuana use and sports gambling. The candidate has also repeatedly highlighted the 35-year age gap between him and the governor. Cunningham is 40. McMaster is 75.
McMaster is running for a second four-year term. Prior to his first election, he ascended from his previous role of lieutenant governor to finish the final two years of former Gov. Nikki Haley’s term. If he wins and completes a second full term, it will make him the longest-serving governor in the state’s history. Haley resigned to take a job in then-President Donald Trump’s administration.
If McMaster wins the general election in November and completes the term, he will become the longest-serving governor in the state’s history.
The governor defeated Harrison Musselwhite, a trucker and former businessman who said he was running to allow open carry of guns, prevent any government vaccine mandates and eliminate state income taxes.
McMaster mostly let his governing do his campaigning, reminding voters how he tried to carefully tailor COVID-19 restrictions when the pandemic started and how the state’s economy is booming while the Democratic administration in Washington struggles with inflation.
“South Carolina is on the course now to be at the top of the world," McMaster said Tuesday at his victory party.
He has raised $5 million for his reelection bid.
Governors in South Carolina are limited to two four-year terms, but if McMaster wins the primary and November's election, he will have the chance to serve an unprecedented 10 years in office. That's because he automatically ascended to the role from his lieutenant governor seat in January 2017 when Nikki Haley resigned to take a job in then-President Donald Trump's administration. McMaster served out Haley's last two years before getting elected in his own right in 2018.
“I want to thank you again for this great victory tonight. And we’re looking for one more,” said McMaster, who during his four decades in politics also won races for attorney general and lieutenant governor and made an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate.
Cunningham defeated state Sen. Mia McLeod, health care administrator Carlton Boyd, barber and musician Calvin “CJ Mack” McMillan and Vietnam veteran and former postal worker William H. “Cowboy” Williams.
Most of the attention had been focused on Cunningham and McLeod, who raised the most money. Cunningham received $1.8 million, while McLeod took in about $500,000.
McLeod often introduced herself as the first Black woman to run for governor in South Carolina, though she said her main purpose for running wasn't to make history, but to make a difference. She said South Carolina needed an alternative to the string of “Republican Light” Democratic men who have run and lost the past five gubernatorial races.
Cunningham has campaigned with a number of splashy promises such as legalizing sports gambling and recreational marijuana use.
He also insists that he is best positioned to beat McMaster. Cunningham cites his ideas and youthfulness, and has repeatedly highlighted the 35-year age gap between him and the governor. Cunningham is 40. McMaster is 75. Cunningham also contends that anything the incumbent governor hopes to accomplish with four more years of public service should have been done in his first four decades as a politician.
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Jeffrey Collins, The Associated Press