The conventional wisdom would have been in Attorney General Henry McMaster's favor going into 2010. There was a crowded field of contenders for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. McMaster had proven statewide support with two solid victories in 2002 and 2006. Before that, he led the South Carolina Republican Party as it expanded its ranks and took control of the state legislature.
Some have suggested McMaster's third-place finish was due to an anti-establishment fad that has made political experience about as desirable as a sexually transmitted disease.
But state Rep. Nikki Haley, who eventually won the nomination, is an outsider only in the sense that her six years in the legislature were spent supporting the governor instead of legislative leaders. That doesn't make you an outsider — it makes you an ineffective politician.
No, McMaster was a victim of the attorney general curse. It's an office that provides a high-profile platform for pushing your partisan political message and winning favor for being tough on crime. But that will only take you so far.
There are notable success stories coming out of the AG's office: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist come to mind. There's also Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, though he's struggled out of the gate since his win in November. And who can forget former New York governor and future CNN host Eliot Spitzer.
We can't speak to what motivated voters to elect those lawyers, but we can say that whatever it was, it hasn't been in South Carolina for a decade (Attorney General Charlie Condon didn't make it to the primary runoff in 2002, either) and it wasn't in Florida last week.
Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, an early favorite in the Sunshine State's GOP gubernatorial primary, lost to a self-funded millionaire. Aside from a shared McHeritage, the McLosers campaigned heavily on their leading roles in a legal challenge to federal healthcare reform. Another plaintiff in the case, Michigan Attorney General Michael Cox was also easily defeated in what was supposed to be a close gubernatorial primary race.
In McMaster's TV spots, the line about fighting healthcare reform ran over an image of the candidate flanked by three intimidating men, including one actor in a police uniform. For the record, the campaign told the City Paper it was a recreation of the press conference where McMaster announced the legal challenge. It would appear that they should not have gone to all the trouble.
McMaster's biggest asset was his ability to be tough on crime — most notably snagging pedophiles and child-porn proliferators all across the state. And he's had a chance to provide some wrong-headed, but politically advantageous opinions on issues like abortion and or state-issued license plates.
Among the many issues McMaster tried to highlight on the campaign trail, there was a handful that he could legitimately argue played to his strengths among conservative voters: executive experience, public safety, traditional values, anti-abortion, and Second Amendment rights. Haley not only couldn't compete with McMaster, she also had more than a few Republicans questioning her credentials on her leadership ability, family values, and her voting record on women's health issues.
But, like the spoiled red meat that is healthcare reform, none of that garnered the interest of a majority of GOP primary voters. McMaster, McCollum, and Cox couldn't offer the strengths GOP voters were looking for in a troubled economy: someone with a record of being pro-business and anti-taxes. National partisan court battles? Pandering legal opinions? That's what Republicans look for in their lawyers, not their leaders.