As the Republican Party continues to move in the direction of Trump, more and more races have evolved into battles to become the ‘Trumpiest of them all’ – including next Tuesday’s gubernatorial runoff in the Palmetto State.
After failing to earn over fifty percent of the vote in the June 12 primary, incumbent South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster is headed to a runoff against second-place finisher, businessman John Warren.
In a state populated by social and fiscal conservatives, both candidates have stood by Trump, even in the midst of his controversial policy to separate immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border.
"When someone breaks the law, they don't take their children with them wherever they go," McMaster said Monday, according to The Post and Courier.
Meanwhile, Warren reportedly said that “President Trump is right,” but did not directly address the issue of family separation.
Warren, whose support “surged from 1 percent to 20 percent” in the past month, according to Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon, has gained substantial momentum as he seeks to paint himself as a political outsider in the likes of Trump himself.
“[Warren] is seen as an alternative to McMaster. He’s a true outsider, a disruptor, like Trump,” Huffmon said. “Now, the race could be a toss-up.”
But McMaster has received the official endorsement of Trump, who will visit the state’s capital on Monday to campaign on the incumbent governor’s behalf.
“Henry worked so hard & was so loyal to me that I look forward to reciprocating!” the president tweeted Thursday, adding that McMaster is “tough on Crime and Strong on Borders.”
Despite Trump’s vocal support for McMaster, Warren is trying to paint himself as a reflection of the president.
“We need someone who’s an outsider like Donald Trump to go to Columbia and drain the swamp,” Warren said in a Wednesday evening debate with McMaster.
“You’re a good man, but you’re not Donald Trump,” McMaster replied to Warren, prompting the crowd’s applause. “I think [Trump] is a magnificent man.”
McMaster went on to mention that he’s often told he was the “first elected official in the country to support then-candidate Trump,” emphasizing that he supported Trump “when it counted.”
Warren, however, has received the support of both the third- and fourth-place finishers in the primary, who equated McMaster with the “corrupt” political establishment.
"Henry McMaster is not Donald Trump. We want someone who’s going to go fight for us, and not worry about his allies and his 40-year career," Catherine Templeton, the third-place finisher, said of Warren.
During the debate, both McMaster and Warren repeatedly praised Trump, who enjoys strong support among South Carolina’s evangelical voters -- a group that accounted for three-quarters of voters in the state’s 2016 Republican primary.
“The thinking [among evangelicals] goes like this: God has used imperfect people to further his kingdom. Therefore, God may be designating Donald Trump, despite his past imperfections, to further his kingdom,” Huffmon said.
Andrew Whitehead, a sociology professor at Clemson University, agreed, noting that evangelical voters in the 2016 election were characterized by a “desire for the United States to highlight and privilege its Christian heritage.”
“Trump’s win was, in large part, due to Christian nationalist rhetoric,” he said.
And in this year’s gubernatorial race, such rhetoric may be especially important as McMaster and Warren square off in a “battle to become the Trumpiest of them all.”
McMaster and Warren have also attempted to paint themselves as devout Christian leaders – from counting the number of churches on the way to campaign events to emphasizing their own faith in ads – while simultaneously aligning themselves with Trump.
Last week, Warren received the endorsement of ‘Duck Dynasty’ star Phil Robertson, who encouraged voters to “live by their Bibles” and vote for the Greenville businessman.
And as the candidates squared off during Wednesday’s debate, Warren praised Trump while reminding the crowd that Tuesday’s election is a runoff for a reason.
"Donald Trump has about a 90 percent approval here in South Carolina," Warren said. "If all his supporters supported Henry McMaster, we wouldn't be on this stage right now."