Why liberal South Carolina activists aren’t mad at Joe Cunningham — at least not yet

Joe Cunningham, center, Democrat recently elected to congress, waits in line to vote at St. Andrews School of Math and Science in Charleston, S.C., Tuesday, November, 6, 2018.
Joe Cunningham, center, Democrat recently elected to congress, waits in line to vote at St. Andrews School of Math and Science in Charleston, S.C., Tuesday, November, 6, 2018. The Associated Press

Late last month, as moderate U.S. House Democrats successfully pressured leaders to pass a border security bill that liberals said did little to protect detained migrant children, national progressive activists raged.

“Any vote other than NO ... is a vote to give more money to ICE to terrorize immigrant families,” Indivisible, a national progressive advocacy group formed after the 2016 election that has mobilized thousands of foot soldiers around the country, tweeted in an official call to action.

Indivisible’s national apparatus called out dozens of centrist lawmakers by name, urging their constituents to hold them accountable. One of those lawmakers was U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents up for re-election in 2020.

Yet two weeks later, back in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, Cunningham isn’t feeling that wrath, confirmed members of the local Indivisible chapters in Charleston and Beaufort.

They concede that in a district President Donald Trump won by 13 percentage points — which before Cunningham’s election in 2018 didn’t send a Democrat to Congress since 1981 — progressives aren’t going to be able to get a representative more liberal than Cunningham.

And unlike in other districts, there are no formal efforts currently to promote a left-leaning Democratic primary challenger to Cunningham — something Indivisible members signaled they would not support.

“If we had someone run to the left of Joe, they wouldn’t have a chance,” said Indivisible Charleston co-chair Katie Preston said. “I just hope to God that we get him in a second term because the (Republicans) who are running against him are so far-right and scary.’

“As progressives in South Carolina, we take whatever wins we can get and we understand that for Cunningham to be elected again, he has to win over the entire Lowcountry, not just the progressive groups in the Lowcountry,” Sara Stevenson, Indivisible Charleston’s treasurer, agreed.

As it is, Cunningham continues to battle accusations of alignment with “Socialists” in his party, with the National Republican Congressional Committee regularly sending out email statements challenging Cunningham to criticize the latest incendiary comments from U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the self-described Democratic Socialist from New York who conservatives now cast as a liberal villain.

“Many of us in Indivisible are very far left, and we have at times been disappointed with some of Cunningham’s positions,” said Carol Corbin with Indivisible Beaufort. “But we also realize he needs to get re-elected and he probably got elected in 2018 by not rocking the boat too much in this very red state.”

These relatively muted responses come amid an ongoing, highly emotional debate over how to address the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Back from the July 4 congressional recess this week, progressive U.S. House Democrats were still furious with party leaders for allowing a vote on a U.S. Senate-passed bill that provided $4.5 billion in border security funding but didn’t include additional accountability provisions designed to protect detained migrant minors.

Cunningham is a member of the two centrist Capitol Hill contingents — the Blue Dog Coalition and the Problem Solvers’ Caucus — that opposed moving the Senate bill farther to the left, arguing it would result in nothing at all getting signed into law.

‘Holding him accountable’

In an interview with The State, Cunningham defended his position.

“Overall, this is a good bill, and while it may not have been perfect in some people’s minds, we need to focus on the good that it provided,” Cunningham said. “It gave us 30 new immigration judge teams to address the backlog. Thirty million dollars for FEMA to reimburse states and countries for all the expenses they incurred relating to this mass influx of migrants. Over $100 million to ensure the safety and well being of children, and as a father I appreciate that.”

Asked whether he was hearing from angry constituents back home, Cunningham said, “not particularly.”

And as to whether he was upset about criticism from colleagues — Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairman Mark Pocan, D-Wis., tweeted that the Problem Solvers’ Caucus should be renamed the “Child Abuse Caucus” — Cunningham replied, “I try to stay out of the divisiveness up in D.C. because it’s not reflective of the values back home, and I vote for my district.”

In an email to The State, national Indivisible spokeswoman Emily Phelps said, “No question — a large number of Democrats made the wrong call on this vote, and we’ve been very vocal about that.”

However, she added, “Indivisible groups are very much independent from the central organization ... Local groups set their own priorities every week, looking at legislative advocacy and electoral activity and community building needs.”

But an event on Friday night could bringing Cunningham’s vote closer to home than it’s been up until this point.

On Friday night, Indivisible chapters around the country will hold “Lights for Liberty” vigils “to protest the inhumane conditions faced by refugees” at facilities along the southern border. Indivisible Charleston and Beaufort will participate.

These events will also coincide with a planned border visit by President Mike Pence and South Carolina’s senior U.S. senator, Republican Lindsey Graham. That trip is expected to bolster the GOP’s call for tightening asylum laws to address the border crisis, which Democrats largely oppose. Media reports of the high profile visit could further enrage South Carolina Democrats who want to oust Graham in 2020.

Preston said Indivisible members in the 1st District were prepared to support Cunningham, but at some point they could draw the line.

“Everyone is glad we got a Democrat elected,” she said, “but we are still holding him accountable.”