GOP congressional candidate Katie Arrington is blaming her defeated GOP primary opponent, U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, for her stunning loss to Democrat Joe Cunningham on Tuesday in South Carolina’s coastal 1st District.
Meanwhile, S.C. Democrats on Wednesday were savoring a stunning upset, as they reclaimed a U.S. House seat they have not held for almost 40 years.
Arrington pointed the finger at Sanford in a Wednesday press conference in Charleston, arguing his lack of support for her after their June primary battle helped seal her narrow — 1.4-percentage point — loss to Cunningham.
“We lost because Mark Sanford could not understand this was about the conservative movement, and not him,” Arrington said, according to media reports.
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Sanford pointedly declined to endorse Arrington after their bruising primary fight ended his time in Congress — first for three terms in the ‘90s and, then, after two terms as governor, since 2013 — representing the 1st District.
After his primary defeat, Sanford accused Arrington of lying about her stance on offshore drilling. That topic — sensitive along the coast — cost Arrington some GOP support. She had campaigned against Sanford saying he had not been supportive enough of Republican President Donald Trump, including his plans to lift a ban on drilling off the Atlantic coast. Later, Arrington said she, too, opposed offshore drilling.
Speaking to the Associated Press on Wednesday, Sanford credited the district’s “strong environmental ethos” for undermining Arrington.
“It’s natural to want to blame someone or something for any loss, in life,” Sanford said, adding, “It wasn’t by accident I was speaking out against the president prior to the primary because it’s what I was hearing from the voters.
“Of all the districts out there ... simple litmus-test adherence to the president is not something the people value.”
Republican Sanford also tweeted his congratulations to Democrat Cunningham: “Congrats. ... My team and I will be running hard to the finish line to ensure smooth transition.”
‘Lowcountry over party’
Cunningham’s win was the shining highlight of Tuesday’s midterm election for S.C. Democrats.
His win — the first time a Democrat has been elected from the 1st District since 1980 — was a stunning upset, flipping to Democratic blue from GOP red a district that Trump won with 53.3 percent of the vote just two years ago.
The 36-year-old Charleston attorney’s victory — by 4,036 votes out of 268,175 cast — gives South Carolina two Democrats in Congress for the first time since former House Budget Committee chairman John Spratt, D-York, lost his 5th District re-election bid in 2010. Cunningham joins U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia as South Carolina’s only Democrats in Congress.
Cunningham proved to be one of the strongest candidates fielded by S.C. Democrats in years.
He campaigned as a moderate who would work across party lines and keep his politics civil. He painted Arrington – a 47-year-old, one-term S.C. House member – as a partisan who would only further the tribalism in Washington, D.C., that frustrates many voters.
“Our message is resonating with folks here in the district,” Cunningham told The State on Tuesday. “Putting people over politics and putting Lowcountry over party. It sends the message that folks are tired of the divisiveness, the negative rhetoric that’s coming out of D.C., that’s coming from the other side.”
Later, after he was declared the victor about 2 a.m. Wednesday, Cunningham said, “Today we sent a message. We ran against divisive, hateful rhetoric. We ran a campaign of issues.”
Cunningham’s momentum during the campaign saw him added to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red-to-Blue” program — giving him access to national money and resources, including a program focused on turning out African-American voters.
“It’s been a really well-run campaign by Cunningham,” said College of Charleston political science professor Gibbs Knotts. “He’s running it in a perfect year. His message of bringing people together is particularly good in this era of Donald Trump and polarization.”
Arrington tried to counter Cunningham’s rise by nationalizing the race, tying her opponent to Democrats disliked by S.C. Republicans, including U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, both California Democrats.
“Will you let Nancy Pelosi claim victory to implement her ‘San Francisco values’ in the Lowcountry by voting for my opponent?” Arrington tweeted Tuesday morning.
However, Cunningham already had pledged not to vote for Pelosi for speaker if Democrats regained control of the House, as they did Tuesday.
Failed GOP rescue mission
As pundits began hedging their predictions that the 1st District would stay red, national Republicans tried to rescue Arrington, who — if elected — would have been South Carolina’s first congresswoman in 25 years.
The National Republican Campaign Committee spent more than $87,000 on ads to boost Arrington’s chances.
High-profile Republicans also campaigned for Arrington. Second lady Karen Pence campaigned with her Saturday in Charleston, and Donald Trump Jr. held a rally Monday for Arrington in Hilton Head.
Arrington won four of the five counties in the 1st District Tuesday.
But she won her home county, Dorchester, by only 2,200 votes, taking 52 percent of the ballots.
She lost Charleston County — Cunningham’s home county, and Sanford’s — by 17,000 votes.