South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Henry McMaster sent ripples though state politics Wednesday night by endorsing Donald Trump’s bid for president. But why would a long-time Republican establishment figure endorse a political “outsider” who personifies a campaign style he has publicly condoned? Let’s examine the recent past to try to come up with the answer.
While he wasn’t yet and has since reversed his path, in 2012, McMaster was on a trajectory that many men who have been at the forefront of politics for most of their adult life fear – he was becoming a non-factor.
It started in 2010, as he attempted his parlay his position as state attorney general into a bid for the governor’s office. This bid, however, ended up woefully short as McMaster finished third in a four-person Republican primary. And while his endorsement of Nikki Haley over Gresham Barrett might have been influential in helping the eventual governor gain her party’s nomination (she finished the initial primary one percentage point short of gaining the nomination outright), it was the same race that polls showed McMaster was leading with three months to go before the primary.
And toward the end, as McMaster slipped in the polling, he took the time to publicly bemoan the divisive form of campaigning the race had seen, calling it “embarrassing.”
Then, in 2012, McMaster pushed into the political headlines again, deciding to throw his weight behind Jon Huntsman for president, praising the former Utah governor as “a strong, consistent conservative, with the best record as a chief executive,” while also saying, “Jon has never been a flip-flopper or an opportunist.”
McMaster also praised Huntsman’s performance for other qualities that Trump would have incredible difficulty claiming, citing Huntsman’s experience as a United States Ambassador to both Singapore and China and saying, “the world we live in is far too dangerous to pick another president with no foreign policy experience.”
But after deciding to basically skip the Iowa caucuses (where Huntsman received one percent of the vote) and finishing a disappointing third in New Hampshire (although picking up some delegates with 17 percent of the vote), the Huntsman camp found itself at a crossroads, and ultimately made a decision that did not reflect well on McMaster.
Rather than deciding to try to use the influence of McMaster’s endorsement to carry on in South Carolina, Huntsman opted to drop out of the race entirely, apparently concluding the support he had lined up in the Palmetto State was not strong enough to keep him among the frontrunners.
Now, McMaster had overcome defeat before. After a resounding loss to Sen. Fritz Hollings in the 1988 senatorial race, he went on to become the South Carolina Republican party chairman for most of the 1990s. And he would overcome defeat again, winning election in 2014 to the position he currently holds.
But after Huntsman dropped out, McMaster made comments about the state of political campaigns that implied the South Carolinian recognized reality-show style politics were becoming more and more commonplace, rather than a questionable alternative.
According to an interview with GQ: “Jon refused to engage in the antics that attract attention. By his nature he will not engage in these things. He wouldn’t go to the Trump debate, wouldn’t sign pledges that people forget about, and wouldn’t set his hair on fire,” McMaster sighed, acknowledging that this was probably the former Utah governor’s undoing. “He wouldn’t engage in name-calling towards the president or step into hatred of the president that people seem willing to foment. His unwillingness to do that is a sign of a good man, but in a campaign that doesn’t call attention to itself in that way, sometimes the attention goes elsewhere.”
And after an October 2015 comment to the New York Times about the Bush family, in which McMaster said, “They’re probably as fine a people as any on earth… But a lot of folks are in a different mood right now,” it became less surprising that the lieutenant governor might step outside the mainstream with his endorsement, although the degree to which he did with his endorsement of Trump is still a larger step than many could have expected.
And here’s the other part: ultimately, McMaster’s endorsement of Trump most likely does far more for McMaster than it does for the presidential candidate. While it has generated some small buzz for Trump, and helps the presidential candidate’s recent narrative that the political establishment is starting to reach out to him, the timing of the endorsement is overshadowing the potential benefit, as Trump’s decision to skip the final Republican debate before the Iowa caucuses is using up all the oxygen in the room. Instead of national media pundits potentially talking about Trump possibly gaining momentum with the Republican power players, McMaster has simply become “the unidentified other guy” in silent clips playing in the background as talking heads discuss whether Trump is showing bravado or petulance for his decision involving Fox News. Such is the reality of reality-show politics.
For McMaster, however, it sends a much larger signal. Perhaps it shows that the lieutenant governor decided the lessons from his own loss in 2010 and Huntsman’s in 2012 was to embrace appearance over policy and catchphrases over credentials. More importantly, however, it shows the 68-year-old McMaster is most likely looking to write another act in his political career, and, whether the allegiance with Trump will translate into support for himself, it’s clear McMaster is not interested in becoming a non-factor in future elections.