Joe Cunningham hasn’t been sworn into office yet. But South Carolina’s first freshman Democrat in 25 years is already feeling political heat.
His first acts will be intensely political — and potentially risky.
On Nov. 28, he’ll cast a ballot for someone other than Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, for speaker. Then, on Jan. 3, Cunningham will vote for someone other than Pelosi on the House floor.
He is one of 16 Democrats, and one of four new members, to sign a letter of intent to oppose Pelosi, a stance that was seen as too extreme for other incoming legislators who made similar anti-Pelosi pledges on the campaign trail.
In Washington last week for new member orientation, Cunningham told McClatchy he had no preferred candidate to succeed Pelosi.
Still, Cunningham’s promise to promote new Democratic party leadership goes back to June, 2017, the very same day he announced his bid for Congress. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, one of the leading players in the efforts to block Pelosi from becoming speaker, linked that very promise to Cunningham’s victory.
“Joe Cunningham in South Carolina, right out of the gate, said, ‘I’m not voting for her.’ That opens the door (for more Democrats ultimately being elected to fight for) health care, pre-existing conditions, offshore drilling,” Ryan told reporters. “That door doesn’t even open for (in many districts) Democrats unless you say, ‘I’m not voting for Pelosi,’ and that’s just the reality of it, and it’s pretty clear.”
Republicans are watching closely, too, waiting to see if Cunningham reverses.
“The (Republican National Committee) has already sent out an email with the list of people who said they weren’t going to vote for Pelosi,” said Ryan.
Katie Arrington, Cunningham’s Republican challenger in the general election who has strongly hinted at a rematch in 2020 and frequently called her opponent “Pelosi Joe,” will be watching.
So will Rep. Mark Sanford, the outgoing Republican congressman in the 1st District who hasn’t definitively ruled out trying to take back his seat and thinks Cunningham will have a hard time winning a second race — no matter what he does.
“An R plus-10 district is an R plus-10 district,” said Sanford, alluding to the margins by which Republican President Donald Trump won in 2016. “I think Joe has a great set of political skills, but it’s an R plus-10 district.”
Just six days after the midterm elections, South Carolina-based Ivory Tusk Consulting and Florida-based Political Marketing International commissioned and released the findings of a poll showing Arrington, then Sanford, leading among those Republican voters in the 1st District would like to see challenge Cunningham in 2020.
Cunningham insisted that re-election is “the least of my concerns right now.” Yet his position on Pelosi could backfire. While his promise to vote against the polarizing politician was attractive to constituents in 2018, it’s unlikely to simply be enough to carry him to re-election in 2020.
He will need to land the right committee assignments to deliver tangible wins for his district, and voting against Pelosi could complicate that effort.
Cunningham’s top choices for committees are appropriations, which controls federal spending; transportation and infrastructure, which has jurisdiction over the Charleston Harbor deepening project, and natural resources, which deals with offshore drilling, the issue Cunningham made the centerpiece of his congressional campaign. He also told McClatchy he was eying ways and means, which writes tax policy, and veterans affairs, a nod to the 1st District’s heavy military presence.
When he returns to Washington next week for the second half of new member orientation — when he will also take his first of two votes against Pelosi — he plans to pitch himself to committee chairs.
Cunningham could get some help from Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-South Carolina, the current No. 3 House Democrat who is on track to maintain his seniority as House majority whip in the new Congress. Clyburn is a former member of the powerful, exclusive appropriations committee and could guide Cunningham towards making the right connections to get a seat on that panel.
“If it’s his goal to be on the appropriations committee, there’s a way to do it,” said Clyburn, who has been the only Democrat in the South Carolina congressional delegation since 2011. “I’ve outlined for him the way to do it.”
He wouldn’t disclose the advice he gave to Cunningham in confidence.
While Pelosi as speaker would not make committee assignments unilaterally, she has enormous influence over the process.
Jaime Harrison, a Democratic National Committee official and former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman, said he didn’t expect Pelosi to punish defectors like Cunningham.
“One thing Pelosi understands is, all politics are local, and sometimes (members) have to do things in their district that people have to do, and deal with what happens afterwards, afterwards,” said Harrison, who worked with Pelosi when he served as a senior aide to Clyburn on Capitol Hill. “There is a lot more leeway given to new members of Congress … these are majority makers. People are not going to look down on them.”
In an interview with McClatchy last week, Cunningham said he had spoken with Pelosi personally about the speakership. Asked if she had offered him anything in exchange for his support, Cunningham seemed surprised.
“What would she offer me?” he asked.
He clarified that no, she did not attempt to use her leverage to sway him.
“It was a pleasant conversation,” he said. “She was happy we won this seat, and you know, there’s no ill will or hard feelings.”
Still, with at least 37 new Democrats coming in next year, Pelosi might be more inclined to reward allies than adversaries, complicating Cunningham’s pursuit of opportunities that can help him prove to voters he deserves a second term.
He might have an edge. According to that same Ivory Tusk Consulting-Political Marketing International poll, 42 percent of likely Republican primary voters said Cunningham “deserved a chance to serve” as opposed to the GOP “find(ing) a candidate to run against Cunningham as soon as possible.”