Cunningham, McMaster argue over same-sex marriage, abortion in only debate before election

Two of the men vying to lead South Carolina for the next four years outlined their visions for the state’s future Wednesday, with one pitching for South Carolin
Published: Oct. 26, 2022 at 11:08 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 26, 2022 at 11:31 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - Two of the men vying to lead South Carolina for the next four years outlined their visions for the state’s future Wednesday, with one pitching for South Carolina to stay its current course and the other arguing his opponent is pulling the state back to the past.

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, seeking re-election for a second term, and former Democratic Congressman Joe Cunningham met Wednesday in Columbia for their first and only currently scheduled debate ahead of the Nov. 8 election.

The debate, hosted by SCETV and the Post and Courier, started with a question for both candidates on what South Carolina’s abortion law should look like.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade in late June opened the door for states to determine the legality of abortion within their own borders.

“I think it was fine the way it was before under Roe v. Wade,” Cunningham said. “…If an abortion ban comes to Gov. McMaster’s desk with no exceptions, he’ll sign it, and I’ll veto it.”

Prior to Roe’s overturn, McMaster had indicated his support for a ban from conception without exceptions, but he has since said he finds the exceptions included in the state’s currently-blocked six-week ban — for the life and health of the mother, sexual assault victims, and fatal fetal anomalies — as reasonable.

South Carolina’s Republican-dominated legislature has been attempting since the summer to further restrict abortions, but lawmakers have not been able to come to an agreement on a final bill.

“Mr. Cunningham knows, well knows, no such bill is ever going to reach my desk,” McMaster responded to Cunningham’s assertion the Republican would sign an exception-free ban and characterizing Cunningham’s stance as “radical.”

Questioning later turned to what would happen if the Supreme Court overturned another precedent, protecting same-sex marriage nationwide.

McMaster said he would follow a current state law that bans it. While that law is still on the books, it has been unenforceable following the court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision to require states recognize same-sex marriages.

“Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think marriage ought to be between a man and a woman, just like I think that boys ought to play in boys’ sports and girls ought to play in girls’ sports,” McMaster said.

Cunningham, seemingly caught by surprise by McMaster’s response, responded the governor was taking the state backwards.

“Gov. McMaster has been leading South Carolina into the 1950s since the 1980s,” Cunningham said.

The candidates shared some agreement on wanting to raise teacher pay, supporting the state’s new early voting law, and accepting this election’s results.

But they disagreed over Cunningham’s proposals to legalize sports betting and recreational marijuana.

“This is about giving South Carolinians more freedom. This may be news to Gov. McMaster, but this is already going on anyways. People are using marijuana anyways. If it’s going on anyways, the state might as well regulate it, tax it,” Cunningham said.

“That’s not the answer to anything, any of this,” McMaster countered. “Look at the children. What does that tell the children? Isn’t there some other way we can make money, by building businesses, getting people educated and trained, and having them working? That’s how you do it.”

Cunningham has also vowed to legalize medical marijuana in South Carolina, a push that has failed at the State House multiple times, including this year.

On that proposal, long championed by Republican Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort County, McMaster said Wednesday, “there may some movement there because there are people that cannot get relief anywhere else.”

The candidates closed the hour-long debate by outlining their day-one priority, if elected.

“I’ll expand Medicaid on day one and create 40,000 new jobs in the process,” Cunningham said, adding the move has had bipartisan support around the country, with former Republican Vice President Mike Pence expanded Medicaid in Indiana while serving as its governor.

McMaster retorted Medicaid expansion would lead to more “federal entanglements” in South Carolina and said his focus would instead be on education.

“We have three pillars of our strength: Our economy, our environment, and our education. Of those three, education is the most important. We need to take great steps now, and we’re doing it,” McMaster said.

If McMaster is re-elected and serves a full second term, he would become the longest-serving governor in state history, after finishing out former Gov. Nikki Haley’s final term after she took a post in the Trump administration.

Cunningham, meanwhile, is seeking to become South Carolina’s first Democratic governor in two decades.

Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Morgan Bruce Reeves did not meet the criteria to participate in the debate, moderators said.