State Rep. Pope of York already thinking about 2018 gubernatorial election

While many voters are glad to have the 2014 elections behind them, state Rep. Tommy Pope is already looking forward to the state’s next big election.

Nikki Haley earlier this month won a second four-year term as governor after a contentious campaign that ended with a 15-point victory. But she won’t be eligible to run again in 2018, and even before the votes were cast two weeks ago, Tommy Pope was thinking about the race to succeed her.

Pope, a Republican who just won a third term representing the York and Clover areas in the S.C. House of Representatives, made news earlier this year when he became the first person to announce his plans to run for governor in 2018. As political announcements go, his was thoroughly modern: while posting graphics for his House campaign on his Facebook page, Pope unveiled what he called an “early bird” logo for “Pope for Governor.”

“I had one political consultant in Columbia tell me, ‘you know, this sure is early. Maybe you should say you were kidding,” Pope said in his office at the Elrod Pope Law Firm in Rock Hill, some 2014 campaign signs leaning in the corner. “But I said, ‘No, I’m serious. If I said I was kidding now, I mean, that would just look weak.”

It’s unclear what opposition Pope might face in the race for governor. Scott Huffmon, political science professor at Winthrop University, said the only other candidate he’s heard mentioned in political circles as a potential 2018 candidate is Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, who would take the reins of a party defeated in four straight gubernatorial campaigns. Another statewide Republican officeholder could also upset Pope’s plans – Lt. Gov.-elect Henry McMaster previously ran for the post in 2010. But Huffmon thinks Pope has an advantage over other legislators because of his high-profile history as a solicitor.

“All somebody has to do in a news story is reference Susan Smith, and people will remember who Tommy Pope is,” Huffmon said.

Pope was the prosecutor in the 1994 case of a Union County mother who drowned her two small children. The case, which attracted widespread state and national media coverage, still gives him a statewide profile.

Four years before the next gubernatorial election, potential candidates can’t do much more than talk. For someone who already holds public office, Pope knows his most immediate task is representing his district, where he will have to run for re-election in 2016. He also expects to be named speaker pro tempore when the General Assembly reconvenes, which would make him the No. 2 figure in South Carolina’s powerful legislative branch. Pope would have to trade in that status to make a run at governor, but he hopes he would be able to make a bigger impact from the governor’s mansion.

Pope wants to see ethics reform pass the Legislature, where he currently chairs a subcommittee studying the issue. “We have to restore confidence in government before we can move forward with our other responsibilities,” he said.

He also hopes to improve the state’s tax and business environment by making improvements in core public services such as infrastructure, education and public safety.

“What’s that Boy Scout motto?” he said. “Always leave a campsite better than you found it.”

Pope said he won’t start thinking seriously about hiring campaign staff and fundraising until after his 2016 re-election bid for the House. But after campaign spending records were broken in 2014, Huffmon thinks any potential candidate needs to meet now with the “big-money players” in South Carolina politics to build relationships with party bigwigs and find the donors who will bankroll a statewide campaign. Candidates also need to start pounding the pavement with county-level party officers and voters across the state.

“Look for them to start speaking at regional Chamber of Commerce events,” Huffmon said. “Especially outside the areas they represent.”

U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney of Indian Land, fresh off winning election to his third term representing the Fifth District, has often been mentioned as a potential gubernatorial candidate. But unlike Pope, Mulvaney isn’t putting too much thought into that prospect yet, at least not publicly.

“I’ve had several reporters reach out to me regarding the race for governor in 2018,” Mulvaney, a Republican, said in an email. “I will say that I think it’s absolutely premature for any politician to be seriously talking about an election that’s four years away. So, while it may well be something to consider in the future, for now I have plenty of work to do on issues that are much more pressing.”

Huffmon doesn’t know if Mulvaney would want to leave a position on the national stage to take over a comparatively weak governor’s office, “but Mulvaney’s young enough that he could use the governor’s office as a springboard to another national office.”

Given the recent scandal over former S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s handling of campaign finances, candidates will also be scrupulous in how they handle fundraising. That concern may cause candidates to “tip their hand” earlier than they otherwise would, Huffmon said.

Pope knows financing and organizing a statewide race will be a challenge compared to running in a smaller district, where he could pay for his campaign signs by holding a fish fry. But he believes the outcome of these races is ultimately in the hands of a higher authority.

“I believe in the Lord’s will,” Pope said. “If 2016 rolls around and Tommy Pope only has $57.47 in the bank, then the Lord’s will is I’m not going to be governor.”