Politics & Government

‘Nobody here should feel left behind’: DCCC chair says money will flow to SC

FILE - In this Nov. 4, 2014 file photo, U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., right, is congratulated on election night, as she enters her victory party in Rock Island, Ill.
FILE - In this Nov. 4, 2014 file photo, U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., right, is congratulated on election night, as she enters her victory party in Rock Island, Ill. AP Photo

A chief Democratic fundraiser for congressional candidates says her committee is ready to make a “major monetary investment” in South Carolina, particularly to ensure the coastal district that just went blue stays that way.

U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos made that pledge while speaking to reporters before headlining the S.C. Democratic Party’s Blue Palmetto fundraising dinner Friday night. The Illinois Democrat chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which she said was committed to keeping U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, the Democratic successor to Republican U.S. Rep Mark Sanford, in his seat.

“This will be a major monetary investment, and we are already engaging voters and we’re already looking at voter registration drives (in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District),” Bustos said.

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The DCCC in March launched its first major field initiative for the 2020 cycle, employing nearly 60 grassroots organizers in targeted communities, including the Lowcountry, to expand inroads Democrats made in 2018 through early voter registration drives and digital outreach.

“I’m here for Joe Cunningham. I’m here to honor Jim Clyburn,” said Bustos, wearing a Cunningham campaign sticker. “South Carolina is very, very important to us, and I can tell you nobody here should feel left behind going forth.”

For years, S.C. Democrats have griped that the national party has paid little attention to the state with an electoral map that has heavily favored Republicans for decades. Cunningham’s 2018 victory, though, shows Democrats can win in conservative districts by focusing on local, more universal concerns of jobs, education, worker training and health care, Bustos said.

“Joe Cunningham was a critical pickup for us in 2018. We also know that is a very tough congressional district,” Bustos told reporters before the banquet. “Joe’s doing all of the right things. … Joe has made the learning curve of being a brand-new member of Congress look easy. And it’s not easy.

“He’s focusing on the issues that matter here.”

1st District top target

Cunningham has steered clear of controversy since assuming office and has built a reputation as a centrist who votes mostly with Democrats but isn’t afraid to break with his party — including voting for Bustos over Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker — a trait that could help earn him crossover appeal with Republican and independent voters, said College of Charleston politic science professor Gibbs Knotts.

“Cunningham has done a good job of talking about the issue important to his district and not getting too out of touch of the moderate nature of that district,” Knotts said, noting Cunningham has not joined calls to impeach President Donald Trump.

Trump won the district by 13 percentage points in 2016.

But operatives at the National Republican Congressional Committee say Cunningham’s S.C. seat is among the top races the GOP should not have lost in last year’s midterms, and the national party is prepared to pour significant resources into reversing the damage.

“It is our No. 1 target here at the state party for the upcoming cycle. The road to the Republican majority in the (U.S.) House leads through the first congressional district,” South Carolina GOP Chairman Drew McKissick told The State.

McKissick said state and national party officials plan to launch a united victory operation by the end of summer that will include full-time staff working on mobilizing and organizing volunteers and donors in the 1st District. McKissick would not say how much the state or national party plans to invest.

‘What we stand for’

In her keynote address to S.C. Democrats, Bustos said the DCCC will be focused on outreach to diverse communities to hear their concerns.

“If we listen, we will succeed in protecting and expanding the most diverse Congress in the history of our nation,” she said. “That is where our strength comes from. People of color are the foundation of the Democratic Party.

“We know that it is mission critical that we connect early and often: with African-American rural communities, with Hispanic rural communities, and with Asian-American rural communities. And not just to earn their votes, but to fight like heck to earn their trust.”

Bustos, who won a blue-collar district in downstate Illinois that voted for Trump by a more than a 20-point margin, drew parallels to her success and Cunningham’s.

“The Lowcountry isn’t some magical island of liberals in the South,” Bustos said. “Folks in both of our communities voted for Trump in 2016, but at the end of the day,” they also voted for someone willing to fight for affordable health care for all Americans and protect the environment, she said.

“Tonight isn’t about the president,” Bustos told S.C. Democrats dressed in tuxes and gowns. “I think the whole country is sick and tired of hearing about that president. ... It’s all about the people we’re fighting for. The everyday Americans in cities, suburbs, and rural communities,” who cannot can afford their health care and are “sitting ducks at the mercy of flooding, sea-level rise, and extreme weather.”

“Americans need to know what we stand for, not just what we stand against,” she said.

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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.