Elections

Opposition to offshore drilling in South Carolina brings political rivals together

Public officials in South Carolina on Friday were willing to take some political risks in order to be seen as steadfast in their opposition to offshore drilling.

At a press conference in Charleston to celebrate the U.S. House’s passage of a bill to permanently ban the practice off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster congratulated the legislation’s sponsor, U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, the freshman Democrat who is the top target for defeat in 2020 by the state’s entire GOP establishment.

McMaster, one of President Donald Trump’s biggest allies, allowed himself to share billing with former governor and congressman Mark Sanford, who recently announced he would challenge Trump for the Republican presidential nomination.

Last year, Sanford lost his GOP primary bid for the congressional district seat that Cunningham went on to win, becoming the first Democrat to do so in years and making himself a top target for national and state GOP parties.

State Rep. Nancy Mace, the Republican who is running to oust Cunningham in the coastal 1st Congressional District, stood alongside an array of local officials to cheer efforts to ban drilling.

Cunningham, meanwhile, took a victory lap for having delivered on his No. 1 pledge during the 2018 campaign, flanked by members of both parties who cemented his bona fides as a centrist who put “Lowcountry over party.”

It wasn’t the photo op national Republicans would have staged, given the national party’s opposition to limiting offshore drilling and its determination to beat Cunningham next year.

And local activists who want to push Cunningham farther to the left might also not be pleased to see their congressman shaking hands with conservative elected officials.

Yet being there meant that each attendee made a calculation that participation in a potentially awkward coalition was worth it to be seen as strongly against offshore oil and gas drilling, which critics say could lead to natural disasters and disrupt South Carolina’s booming tourism economy that relies on undisturbed beaches and waterfronts.

Politicians at the event were also deliberate in their actions and careful in their choice of words.

Cunningham called out South Carolina’s Republican U.S. senators, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, to compel their leadership to take up the bill in their GOP-controlled chamber.

Graham and Scott are not advocates of banning offshore drilling but they aren’t staunch opponents of the practice, either, and it’s highly unlikely they would use their political capital to try to advance this measure that already has minimal Republican support.

All but 12 Republicans in the Democrat-controlled U.S. House voted against Cunningham’s bill earlier this week. Every South Carolina Republican also voted “no,” including U.S. Rep. Tom Rice of Myrtle Beach, the other coastal member of the contingent who opposes offshore drilling, and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson of Aiken, who earlier this year announced he was now also in the opposition camp.

‘Team South Carolina’

But if Cunningham’s shout-out to Graham and Scott was designed to get McMaster to follow suit, the governor didn’t take the bait.

Though he thanked Cunningham and “members of Congress” for raising the issue, he opted not to discuss what Congress ought to do next.

Instead, McMaster highlighted that protecting the South Carolina coast from drilling was a “long” fight he would continue to wage with a broad coalition of allies.

“This is the team, Team South Carolina,” McMaster said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or Democrat; Upstate, low state, Gamecock, Tiger. It doesn’t make a difference. We must protect our state.”

Sanford, when it was his turn for remarks, took credit for having helped lead the fight against offshore drilling as Cunningham’s predecessor, enjoyed two chants of “Run Mark Run” from someone in attendance and let himself have a dig at Trump.

“If it’s good enough for the view from Mar-a-Lago, it’s good enough for the view from Bowens Island,” Sanford said, referring to the Trump administration’s decision to carve out an exemption from its offshore drilling expansion proposal for Florida but no other coastal states. Mar-a-Lago is Trump’s Palm Beach resort.

Mace stood quietly before posting on Facebook she opposed offshore drilling but also opposed Cunningham’s bill, echoing what Rice and other opponents said: A permanent ban was too extreme.

“A nationwide, mandated ban, like this bill, unfortunately could never and will never become law,” she wrote. “The way to help our Governor and our state and in my opinion isn’t joining National Democrats in a messaging bill that can’t become law but makes for a nice photo op.”

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.
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