South Carolina’s Democratic candidate for governor said the Republican incumbent’s relationship with President Donald Trump may have helped him win his primary, but will hurt the state in the long run because of crippling tariffs.
State Rep. James Smith stood Wednesday in the parking lot of a closed Walmart in Fairfield County, the day after Element TV Company announced it was laying off 126 employees because of increased costs after Trump ordered a 25 percent tariff on Chinese products, including key television components the company uses.
Smith warned the layoffs scheduled for October are just the first drop in the bucket as bigger foreign manufactures attracted by the state’s low taxes, incentives and business-first climate suddenly find themselves paying a significant import tax that Trump said evens the playing field for American companies, but business leaders worry could lead to more layoffs and even shuttered plants.
Gov. Henry McMaster “cares more about his friendship with the president than the people of South Carolina,” Smith said of the GOP incumbent who was one of Trump’s earliest supporters and got a campaign visit in June on the eve of his heavily contested runoff.
Smith spoke in Winnsboro, less than a half-mile (1 kilometer) from the Element plant. The television maker was the first significant South Carolina company to say it was hurt by the tariffs, although company officials said on Twitter they think they accidentally ended up on the tariff list and hope their parts are removed before they plan to lay off all but eight employees on Oct. 5.
Other South Carolina companies are worried the tariffs will hurt them too, especially foreign automakers and their suppliers. Volvo from Sweden isn’t sure it can now keep its promise to hire 4,000 workers by 2021 at its recently opened plant near Charleston. And BMW has written top Trump administration officials saying depending on how steep the tariffs are, some or many of its 10,000 workers at its plant near Spartanburg may be at risk.
Farmers are about to realize how retaliatory tariffs on food hurt as harvest season approaches, and anyone who needs steel for construction is hoarding materials now and that extra spending is giving the economy a false boost before the import taxes take a huge chunk out of South Carolina’s recovery from the Great Recession, Smith said.
“Why wait for what we know is coming,” asked Smith, who said McMaster should be talking to every single person he knows in Washington and if he is worried about South Carolina losing jobs, making that case to the people every day.
McMaster on Tuesday said the president is aware he does not like the tariffs. But he said he hopes they lead to fair trade and in the long run help the U.S.
McMaster’s has repeatedly told Trump and Vice President Mike Pence how tariffs will hurt the state, said Caroline Anderegg, his campaign spokeswoman.
“James is trying to get elected on the backs of workers who just found out they may be laid off,” Anderegg said in an email.
South Carolina made a remarkable recovery from the Great Recession, thanks in large part to former Gov. Nikki Haley’s relentless pursuit of manufacturers, especially overseas companies looking for an American base. The state’s unemployment rate was 10.7 percent in June 2010 and 3.8 percent this past June.
But clouds are on the horizon, especially in Fairfield County. The county lost 6,000 jobs last summer when construction was halted on two nuclear reactors. The Walmart where Smith spoke closed in 2016. Textile maker DuraFiber closed last year leaving 200 more people out of a job.
Smith’s strategy does have risks. Trump won South Carolina with 55 percent of the vote in 2016. But a poll conducted in April by Winthrop University of all adults in the state found Trump’s approval rating at 46 percent.