COLUMBIA, S.C. — Three of the Democrats vying for their party’s gubernatorial nomination gathered Friday night in Columbia for their only debate ahead of Tuesday’s primary election.
Former U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, state Sen. Mia McLeod and health care advocate Carlton Boyd made their cases during a debate televised on South Carolina Educational Television and co-sponsored with The Post and Courier of Charleston.
There were no lively exchanges during the hourlong debate, the sole matchup before Tuesday's primary. A two-week early voting window closed just as the debate began.
With an opening question on how to alleviate pain at the gas pump, Cunningham pointed to a plan he rolled out last year to suspend South Carolina's gas tax, arguing that even a temporary suspension would help.
“I don't care if it's a Democratic or Republican idea, because it's being done in states across the country,” Cunningham said.
Boyd agreed with a suspension but said there should be a tight limit on the duration of any suspension. He noted the wear and tear on South Carolinians' vehicles, thanks to crumbling roads that the gas tax revenue aims to repair.
McLeod shied away from a suspension, pointing to research "that suspending the gas tax would have very little impact on the lives of everyday South Carolinians who are struggling to pay for gas.” Instead, McLeod raised the idea of a rebate that would allow residents to get “much more money back as opposed to a gas tax suspension.”
Asked about how to combat gun violence, McLeod seemed to advocate for a ban on semi-automatic weapons, saying that weapons like "AR-15s and other semi-automatic weapons should not be in the hands of civilians,” calling them “weapons of war.”
Cunningham laid blame for gun violence at the feet of incumbent Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, whose solution he said “is to do nothing" and called the longtime GOP politician “a governor of the past, and we need a governor of the future.”
Boyd said he would focus on big changes, like “teaching children first aid” to respond quickly in situations such as drive-by shootings.
“We are putting out a forest fire with a sippy cup,” he said of current efforts.
No Democrat has captured South Carolina's top office in 20 years. Asked how Democrats could make more headway in statewide general elections, Cunningham pointed to his historic 2018 flip of the 1st District seat from red to blue hands, arguing that he's the only candidate who has proven he can appeal to Republicans.
“It's going to be a tough race, but I can also tell you that I’m up for the challenge,” he said of the general election.
McLeod seemed to take a swipe at Cunningham, saying Democrats “have to stop as Republican-lites,” a criticism she has made of Cunningham's campaign as being too much like the other party.
None of the Democratic candidates have mentioned whom they might select as a running mate if nominated. Boyd, who is new to politics, said he would select a partner with more experience. Cunningham said he would want a running mate “who is ready on Day One,” while McLeod said she wanted a lieutenant governor who would “fight for the people of South Carolina.”
The tenor of Friday’s matchup was in contrast to the last week of the campaign, during which McLeod took on the top Democrat in the state’s House of Representatives, castigating the chamber’s minority leader on Twitter just hours after he endorsed Cunningham.
A total of five Democrats will face off in Tuesday’s primary. One candidate did not respond to the invite for Friday’s debate. Another, Calvin McMillan, did not respond to an invitation, showed up anyway, and was not allowed to participate.
If none of the Democratic candidates wins a majority in Tuesday’s vote, the top two vote-getters will move on to a runoff on June 28. McMaster is likely to defeat his two GOP challengers, neither of whom has managed to attract significant fundraising support.