Politics & Government

National Democrats return to deep-red South Carolina district

Joe Cunningham for Congress announcement

Joe Cunningham is a Democrat running against Mark Sanford for Congress in South Carolina's First Congressional District which includes Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester, Colleton and Beaufort Counties.
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Joe Cunningham is a Democrat running against Mark Sanford for Congress in South Carolina's First Congressional District which includes Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester, Colleton and Beaufort Counties.

National Democrats sent a Washington operative to South Carolina’s First Congressional District this week — a second visit in just three weeks since Republican incumbent Rep. Mark Sanford lost his primary election.

The return trip sends a strong signal Democrats see a big chance to retake control of a seat they haven’t held since 1981 — in a year when the party needs to win 23 races to win back control of the House.

The Democratic effort appears to be a sign the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s official fundraising arm for House candidates, is preparing to make crucial investments in Democratic candidate Joe Cunningham’s campaign.

That could include broadcasting the district as a potential pick-up opportunity on the party's “Majority Makers” list. Cunningham might even land in the DCCC’s prestigious “Red-to-Blue” program, which entitles an election cycle’s most promising Congressional candidates to significant “organizational and fundraising support.”

“This is a district we are watching closely,” DCCC spokeswoman Amanda Sherman told McClatchy.

National Democrats started buzzing about their First District chances upon discovering that Cunningham, a political newcomer, wouldn’t be competing in the general election against Sanford, an entrenched fixture in South Carolina politics for almost two decades who never lost a race until now.

The DCCC first sent its Washington, D.C.-based regional political director, whom the DCCC declined to name, to the district two days after Sanford’s June 12 primary defeat to State Rep. Katie Arrington. The political director returned to South Carolina the first week of July as Arrington was being transferred out of intensive care following a serious car accident on June 22, from which she is expected to make a fully recovery.

The director spent time meeting with Cunningham campaign officials. Cunningham is just returning to the trail following a short break out of respect for Arrington’s injuries. The national strategist asked questions about poll numbers and fundraising and conducted the type of candidate vetting that generally occurs before deciding to invest precious resources into a congressional race.

“We would have had our hands full with Sanford,” Tyler Jones, a senior consultant for Cunningham, acknowledged. “Arrington's victory created an unprecedented opportunity in South Carolina, and we are ready to take advantage of that opportunity.”

Democrats’ efforts to win in South Carolina’s First District will ultimately still be an uphill battle. The district’s political makeup is changing thanks to an influx of newcomers to the coastal area that includes Charleston, but voters there still by and large supported Donald Trump for president in 2016.

South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick recently dismissed Democrats’ optimism about their chances in the district.

“Democrats think they see pickup opportunities everywhere, but the fact of the matter is, what they’re selling just isn’t going to sell,” McKissick told McClatchy. “They’re selling warmed-over socialism … non-traditional South Carolina values.”

Arrington bested Sanford in part by pledging her loyalty to Trump. She could be a perfect foil to Cunningham, who like many Democrats around the country is trying to ride a “Blue Wave” in the November midterms by repudiating Trump and Trump-aligned candidates.

“Arrington ran to the right of Mark Sanford,” said College of Charleston political science professor Gibbs Knotts. “While that was a smart primary strategy, it could backfire a little bit” in the general.

Some Republicans in the district are already showing signs of alienation from Arrington. Following her primary victory, GOP Mayors Jimmy Carroll of Isle of Palms, and Tim Goodwin of Folly Beach endorsed Cunningham for his opposition to offshore drilling, a defining local issue.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, the delegation’s lone Democrat who serves as his party’s third ranking member in the House leadership, said “national issues are beginning to resonate in South Carolina.”

He said the 2017 GOP tax bill that would scale back access to affordable housing and Trump’s emerging trade policy that would adversely affect the state’s manufacturing economy.

“If Cunningham runs a campaign that exposes this tax bill for what it is, this trade policy for what it is, you’re going to see a victory for him come November 6.”

Clyburn originally viewed Cunningham with skepticism, especially bristling at Cunningham’s decision to pair his campaign launch with an announcement he would not vote for Nancy Pelosi for Democratic leader. Clyburn called it “foolish” and pointed out that Cunningham was from Kentucky, not South Carolina.

But even before the June 12 primary, Clyburn had gotten on board with the Cunningham campaign. The two have met and spoken more than once, and Clyburn has contributed money.

“I know he’s already had several conversations here in D.C. to make sure people know that Joe has his full support,” Jaime Harrison, the former state Democratic Party Chairman who is now an associate chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told McClatchy. “He’s going to be pushing for him.”

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