Politics & Government

National GOP side-stepped him. Here’s why House Democrats targeted him in first SC ad

U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham pressures Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to pass bills

U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, who is a gun owner and has a concealed carry permit, wants gun reform.
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U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, who is a gun owner and has a concealed carry permit, wants gun reform.

Political observers are waiting to see just how much money national political groups pour into South Carolina’s hotly contested 1st Congressional District race.

Turns out, in its first foray into South Carolina’s hottest U.S. House contest, a powerful national Democratic fundraising group is making a small splash.

But in it, the group is banking on one thing: Trump being a losing bet.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — the fundraising arm for U.S. House Democrats — this week launched its first ad campaign in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District.

The digital ad — on Facebook — targets Bikers for Trump founder and conservative grassroots leader Chris Cox, considered a long-shot for winning the Republican primary to challenge incumbent U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, a Charleston Democrat.

Granted, the DCCC didn’t spend much: The ad, a sponsored post on Facebook, fetched a paltry bill in terms of campaign ads, costing “not more than four figures.”

But more than the amount, the target of the ad has some observers scratching their heads.

Why?

Cox doesn’t seem like much of a threat. He did not report any campaign fundraising the last quarter, according to the Federal Election Commission. His campaign would not disclose how much it had raised since launching his bid for the U.S. House seat in early July.

A powerful national Republican group doesn’t have confidence in his candidacy.

Cox was not included as an “On the Radar” candidate for the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Young Guns program.

Three other Republican candidates running for the seat — financial planner and Mount Pleasant Town Councilwoman Kathy Landing, State Rep. Nancy Mace of Daniel Island, and Beaufort County Councilman Michael Covert — were named to the program.

That means they “have met the minimum threshold in campaign organization and show potential to achieve greater status in the program as the cycle progresses.”

The Facebook ad — targeted to moderate and conservative voters in the district — calls out Cox’s rubber-stamp support for President Donald Trump and “his reckless agenda that would repeal the Affordable Care Act and strip health care away from millions of Americans.”

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“In the crowded Republican primary for South Carolina’s 1st congressional district, Chris Cox’s unparalleled support for Donald Trump stands out,” DCCC spokesperson Avery Jaffe said. “That’s why we’re going to make sure Lowcountry voters know that Chris Cox is just too extreme for South Carolina.”

Campaign spokesman Chris Olmstead said Cox “was proud to help get President Trump elected, but he will be even more proud to, as our congressman, get the Lowcountry a seat at the table with the president to bring back funds for our infrastructure, ensure that offshore drilling doesn’t occur off our coast, and actually put the Lowcountry over party.”

The ad is the DCCC’s first in what is expected to be one of the top hotly contested congressional races in 2020.

Trump ‘tweet bump’ a factor

While the minimal investment and choice of candidate may seem perplexing, Brady Quirk-Garvan, former chairman of the Charleston County Democratic Party, said it serves an effective reminder of how far the Republican has drifted.

The GOP “has become a puppet party for Donald Trump,” Quirk-Garvan said, adding his candidacy shows that the day of the moderate Republican “is over.”

However, he added, the DCCC’s strategy to target Cox could pay off later if the president backs him.

“He may not be the most competitive (candidate), but if (Cox) gets the tweet bump from Donald Trump, he instantly becomes a contender.”

For years, S.C. Democrats have griped that the national party has paid little attention to the state, seeing it as a lost cause. Cunningham’s 2018 victory, wresting the Lowcountry seat from GOP control for the first time since 1981, is fueling hope for Democrats that the party can gain ground in districts thought to be conservative.

Republicans, both nationally and on the state level, say they are prepared to pour significant resources into defeating Cunningham. NRCC officials say Cunningham’s S.C. seat is among the top races the GOP should not have lost in last year’s midterms.

But so far, national groups are playing with low antes in the 1st District.

So far, the NRCC continues to lob attacks on Cunningham, criticizing him for what it calls his alignment with “socialists” in his party, going up with a digital ad attacking the Charleston Democrat for supporting public campaign financing.

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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.
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