SC’s Joe Cunningham faces uphill climb for cash in reelection battle

U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham raised close to $2.3 million in his pursuit of South Carolina’s 1st District congressional seat last year, spending all but $11,115 of that sum to pull off his stunning victory.

If the Democrat wants to win reelection in 2020, he will have to match these figures at least. More likely, he will have to exceed them.

Cunningham was the first Democrat to win the Charleston district in nearly three decades, and Republicans are eager to win back the seat. That could make Cunningham’s second congressional campaign even more fiercely competitive — and, in turn, expensive.

At the start of this election cycle, Cunningham has $58,587 cash on hand, according to a report the newly elected Democrat filed Thursday with the Federal Elections Commission.

Between Nov. 27 and Dec. 31 of last year, he raised $95,057. All but $6,950 came from inside the state.

Cunningham spent $47,584 on staff salaries, event catering and transportation-related expenses as he traveled between the district and Washington, D.C., for new member orientation activities.

Cunningham won his race by rejecting money from political action committees and refusing to go into debt. As he runs for reelection, he will have to balance his day job — as a member of Congress — with fundraising that won’t include the huge corporate checks from which many of his colleagues will benefit.

With national Democrats desperate to hold onto Cunningham’s seat for their party, he could get more financial assistance. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last year had Cunningham in its prestigious “Red-to-Blue” program, entitling him to national resources including money. But they never spent the cash on him that they spent elsewhere.

Republicans didn’t take Cunningham’s threat to their candidate, former State Rep. Katie Arrington of Summerville, that seriously until just days before the midterm elections, when they swooped in with ad buys that hovered near the $230,000 mark.

In 2020, however, both national campaign fundraising operations will be paying attention to the 1st District race, escalating the competition between Charleston’s Cunningham and his eventual GOP challenger to out-raise and outspend one another.

The National Republican Congressional Committee is wasting no time, already identifying Cunningham as one of its top targets in the next election cycle.

The NRCC has several blog posts up on its website challenging Cunningham’s commitment to his constituents during his first month in office, which coincided with the longest government shutdown in history.

“Joe Cunningham frequently talks about putting South Carolinians before the Democratic Party. He even has a hashtag in his Twitter bio to go along with that conviction: #LowcountryOverParty,” reads one post from Jan. 22. “However when Donald Trump unveiled a bipartisan deal that would end the shutdown ... Joe announced that he’s standing with radical Democrats and is refusing to negotiate.”

“While the special interests plan Joe’s demise, he’ll be working with Democrats and Republicans to prevent another shutdown and actually improve the lives of the people in the Lowcountry,” Tyler Jones, a Cunningham campaign consultant, replied in a statement.

Forced to lend her campaign thousands of dollars to stay afloat, Arrington raised nearly $1.7 million and spent $1.6 million to lose to Cunningham. Now toying with the idea of challenging Cunningham again, she currently has just $963 in her account.

Mark Sanford, the Republican incumbent who lost his primary to Arrington last June, also has not definitively ruled out trying to win back his seat. He currently has more than $1.3 million in his campaign account.

Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where her reporting on South Carolina politics appears in The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.