Politics & Government

Lowcountry lawmaker to run for SC Democract Joe Cunningham’s US House seat

South Carolina state Rep. Nancy Mace, R-Berkeley
South Carolina state Rep. Nancy Mace, R-Berkeley online@thestate.com

A Republican state representative with connections to President Donald Trump hopes to unseat South Carolina’s newest Democratic congressman in 2020.

Republican state Rep. Nancy Mace of Daniel Island filed paperwork Tuesday with the Federal Election Commission to run for South Carolina’s coastal 1st District congressional seat, currently held by U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, a Charleston Democrat in his first term.

Elected to the State House to represent Berkeley and Charleston counties in a 2018 special election, Mace had been heavily courted by national GOP groups to challenge Cunningham, The State first reported.

Cunningham pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the 2018 midterms, reclaiming the seat that had been held by a Republican for four decades.

In a video timed for release with the launch of her campaign, Mace says she would be “a new voice” with the “right experience.” Mace says she would focus on shifting foreign aid to increase infrastructure spending at home, tightening border security and promoting fiscally conservative policies.

“Supporting America first means securing America first,” Mace told The State. “We need a robust immigration system that allows for proper legal immigration, while also securing our border,” including building a wall, she said.

Mace, too, in the video vows “to protect our constitutional rights,” while holding a military-style rifle. The image is clearly meant to appeal to Second Amendment supporters, an important part of the GOP base. It also sets up a contrast with Cunningham, who has pushed for gun control measures to prevent mass shootings in the wake of a Charleston church shooting in 2015.

Cunningham joined fellow S.C. Democrat, U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, to pass in the House a bill to close the so-called “Charleston loophole” on gun background checks that allowed avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof to purchase the gun he used to kill nine black parishioners at Charleston’s “Mother” Emanuel AME Church.

“I’m a gun owner ... but there are common sense gun regulations that can be passed without infringing on people’s Second Amendment right,” Cunningham said at a town hall meeting in Summerville earlier this month.

Mace’s entry could help excite donors and mobilize the Republican Party’s base to take on a popular incumbent, College of Charleston political science professor Gibbs Knotts said.

Cunningham has avoided controversy and built a reputation as a centrist who votes mostly with Democrats, but isn’t afraid to break with his party.

“She’s definitely somebody Cunningham should be worried about” given her name recognition, Knotts said of Mace.

Mace joins a Republican field of three other candidates who say they will seek the seat. They are financial planner and Mount Pleasant Town Councilwoman Kathy Landing, Beaufort County Councilman Mike Covert of Bluffton and Logan Cunningham, a Hilton Head Island school teacher who lives in Bluffton.

Mace has political experience — but not so much that she could get tied to controversial votes — along with a compelling story, Knotts said.

She was the first female graduate of the Citadel, the formerly all-male military college. In 2014, she launched an unsuccessful long-shot bid against incumbent Lindsey Graham for the GOP nomination in the U.S. Senate. In 2016 she served as state director of Trump’s presidential campaign.

Republicans need a candidate who can strike a balance between representing priorities of more moderate Republicans, Democrats and independents in the district, while demonstrating some loyalty to Trump, Knotts said.

If elected, Mace said Trump — who won the district by 13 percentage points in 2016 — would have an ally in Congress, but would put “the Lowcountry and America first,” including departing with Trump and his administration’s push for offshore drilling.

Mace was the primary sponsor on a State House resolution expressing opposition to drilling in South Carolina’s waters. She penned a letter published Monday by USA Today touting her opposition.

Cunningham made his opposition to offshore oil drilling and seismic testing central to his campaign, advancing a bipartisan bill to ban the practice off the Atlantic and Pacific U.S. coasts.

“Joe will continue to work across the aisle to ban offshore drilling and help our veterans, and that’s why Lowcountry voters will re-elect him in 2020,” Cunningham campaign spokesman Tyler Jones said in a statement, citing Congressional Quarterly naming Cunningham America’s most independent member of Congress.

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Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.