South Carolina Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham on Thursday kept his first campaign promise: He voted for someone other than Nancy Pelosi for speaker — and instead backed a colleague who could help him immensely as he faces what will likely be a tough re-election next year.
On opening day of the 116th Congress, Cunningham picked Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Illinois, as his symbolic choice to lead the new Democratic-controlled House.
While Pelosi was coasting to election as speaker, a post she held from 2007 to 2011, several freshmen — Cunningham among them — had pledged during their campaigns not to vote for the California Democrat, a favorite target of Republicans for her largely liberal agenda.
Bustos, the incoming chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was not a candidate for speaker. She supports Pelosi, who was officially running unopposed and won the contest with 220 votes.
But members of Congress can cast votes for whoever they want to serve as speaker, and many do so if they oppose the party’s official nominee. Cunningham voted for Bustos along with new Democratic Reps. Jared Golden of Maine, Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia.
Nine other House Democrats voted for candidates other than Pelosi. Alternatives including former Vice President Joe Biden, 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and Illinois Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth. Two House Democrats voted “present,” meaning they did not vote for anyone.
Cunningham had been considering a vote for Bustos well before she launched a bid to run the DCCC, the House Democrat’s main fundraising arm, said Rebecca Drago, Cunningham’s communications director, on the eve of the speaker vote. Bustos was elected chairwoman by her colleagues in early December.
When asked by McClatchy in November who he might support for speaker, Cunningham mentioned Bustos specifically as one lawmaker he thought might be an “effective leader.”
During the last election cycle, Bustos was the DCCC’s chairwoman of “Heartland Engagement.” She was responsible for recruiting and advising candidates throughout eight Midwestern states.
She also maintained close ties to the organization’s competitive “Red-to-Blue” program, which provides money and resources to viable Democratic candidates in districts held by Republicans. Cunningham was chosen for the program.
“Congressman Cunningham has considered voting for Rep. Bustos for months and she was a great resource to him on the campaign,” Drago said.
Cunningham will continue to interact closely with Bustos over the next two years. Now that he is an incumbent Democrat in a conservative-leaning district that President Donald Trump won in 2016, Cunningham will be in the DCCC’s “Frontline” program, where the most vulnerable members get special resources — from fundraising help to field staff — to keep their seats. Bustos is a “Frontline” member herself.
Cunningham was one of several freshman Democrats who pledged prior to the midterms they would oppose Pelosi’s return to the speakership.
Some candidates argued Pelosi had been at the helm of the party for too long and it was time to usher in a new generation of leadership. Others questioned whether Pelosi was too toxic to sustain the Democratic majority into the 2020 presidential election cycle. Pelosi, 78, has led House Democrats since 2003.
After the midterm elections, Pelosi was able to chip away at some of her opposition in the incoming class and among returning lawmakers, and was able to triumph thanks to a combination of promising reforms and arguing she was the only viable candidate for the job. No others were willing to declare a challenge.
Pelosi made personal phone calls to Cunningham and met with him in Washington during new member orientation, as she did with other members unsure about her ascent.
Cunningham was one of the few who remained steadfast in opposition. He was one of 16 House Democrats, and four incoming congressmen, to put his name on a letter vowing not to vote for Pelosi for speaker. He also was one of 33 House Democrats who opposed nominating Pelosi in early December.
“There’s no ill will or hard feelings. We appreciate everything she’s done and all her efforts,” Cunningham told McClatchy late last year. “It’s just a position that we feel strongly on.”
He explained his vote for Bustos in a statement to McClatchy Thursday.
“When I ran for Congress, I promised my constituents that I would not vote for Nancy Pelosi, and I kept that promise,” Cunningham said.
“I’ve made it clear that we need new leadership in this party,” he continued. “Representative Bustos has a strong, independent voice and knows how to work across the aisle to get things done. Congresswoman Bustos understands how to represent a red district, and she knows how to talk to constituents like mine.”
By disavowing Pelosi in the campaign, Cunningham untethered himself from the party establishment and was able to establish his independence in a heavily Republican state, where no new Democrat had been elected to Congress in 25 years. Cunningham had to convince moderates to cross party lines was crucial to his victory.
In the general election, he still battled accusations from his challenger, then-State Rep. Katie Arrington, that he was in lockstep with national Democrats. Arrington, who beat then-incumbent Rep. Mark Sanford in the GOP primary, even took to calling Cunningham “Pelosi Joe.”
There was no way Cunningham could have reneged on his promise to oppose Pelosi and maintained his credibility with constituents, let alone avoided accusations of hypocrisy from Republicans eager to reclaim the 1st District in 2020.
“Joe Cunningham in South Carolina, right out of the gate, said, ‘I’m not voting for her,’” said Rep. Tim Ryan, R-Ohio, in November. “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.”
Ryan was one of the leaders of the movement to push out Pelosi and against her for Democratic leader after the 2016 elections. But Ryan was ultimately one of the lawmakers Pelosi was able to sway with a promise she’d personally submit to term limits.