GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — President Donald Trump waded back into Southern politics Monday, showering praise on one of his earliest supporters, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster.
At a closed-door campaign fundraiser, Trump praised McMaster as his "friend" and "compatriot" and predicted McMaster would be the state's governor for "many years," according to video of the event posted by the South Carolina newspaper The State.
"He's a terrific person, terrific man. He works so hard," Trump told the crowd. "He loves South Carolina, he loves the people."
Trump's appearance at a private fundraiser for McMaster in Greenville came less than a month after the defeat of Sen. Luther Strange, the president's preferred candidate in a Republican runoff for a U.S. Senate seat from Alabama.
McMaster greeted Trump at the airport in nearby Greer, South Carolina, before they traveled to an Embassy Suites hotel for the event. Two of the state's Republican lawmakers in Washington, Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Joe Wilson, flew with Trump on Air Force One.
Organizers closed the event to the news media, but several minutes of video were posted online by The State.
Some in heavily Republican South Carolina see similarities between McMaster and Strange, both with impeccable Republican credentials.
Strange fought same-sex marriage as Alabama attorney general. McMaster headed South Carolina's GOP for years, was its top prosecutor and was elected lieutenant governor in 2014. Both men were elevated to their current offices by appointment. Strange was appointed by then-Gov. Robert Bentley to fill the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. McMaster was elevated to the governor's office after Trump picked then-Gov. Nikki Haley to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Strange and McMaster took political risks to support Trump's presidential candidacy. Known for rewarding loyalty, Trump backed their candidacies.
But Strange lost the nomination to Moore, who was twice removed as Alabama Supreme Court chief justice. The first removal was for defying a federal judge's order to take down a Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building. He was elected again but was permanently suspended after a judicial discipline panel ruled he urged probate judges to deny marriage licenses to gay couples. Moore was propelled by his support across the mostly white, evangelical-dominated state where voters have repeatedly embraced political outsiders who campaign heavily on defending their religious values and rebuffing the establishment.
Although he is the incumbent, McMaster isn't receiving political deference: several Republicans are challenging him in the primary. His most formidable opponent thus far is Catherine Templeton, an anti-union attorney who served Haley as head of the state's labor and public health departments.
The Trump administration tried to woo Templeton to Washington with a job at the Department of Labor, but Templeton passed. She has amassed a campaign war chest nearly commensurate to McMaster's. Both are nearing $2 million cash on hand.
Some South Carolina political analysts question whether McMaster, who is entering his fourth decade in politics, may be relying too heavily on Trump's support to boost his 2018 election chances. Chad Walldorf, a businessman who served in former Gov. Mark Sanford's administration, said he sees the parallels with Alabama.
"I respect loyalty, but it seems that Trump is again misreading the situation on the ground, getting behind the establishment candidate who was not elected to his position, running against a credible agent of change who's garnering more significant grassroots support," he said, referring to Templeton. "At least from the voter standpoint, it seems to me that folks eager for change are eagerly jumping on the Templeton bandwagon."
Trump, meanwhile, said McMaster was a "talented guy" and said he believed he was doing "really well."
"You know I'm a poll person. Then I don't believe 'em, but I like to read 'em anyway," Trump said.
Kinnard reported from Columbia, South Carolina.