State Politics

National Democrats will invest money in SC congressional race

National Democrats officially think they can flip South Carolina’s 1st District in the U.S. House for the first time since 1981.

With 81 days to go before November’s midterm elections, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is putting candidate Joe Cunningham in its “Red to Blue” program.

The designation, shared first with McClatchy, means Cunningham now is part of an elite list of candidates from traditionally Republican districts who national Democrats think can win in the November.

Most important, the distinction comes with money. In addition to signaling to donors that they should invest in the Cunningham campaign, being in the Red to Blue program will get Cunningham “strategic guidance, staff resources, candidate trainings and more,” according to a statement from the Congressional Campaign Committee, the formal fundraising arm for House Democratic candidates.

“From working as an ocean engineer to pursuing justice for those who have been wronged, Joe Cunningham has dedicated himself to making the world and his community a better place,” committee chairman Ben Ray Lujan, a U.S. congressman from New Mexico, said in a statement. “Joe’s impressive campaign operation and dedication to South Carolina’s First Congressional District makes this race competitive and one to watch in November.”

Cunningham has been on the committee’s radar since the June 12 S.C. primary election. That’s when U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, an entrenched Republican incumbent, was ousted by his GOP primary opponent, Summerville state Rep. Katie Arrington.

Sanford’s defeat created an opening for Cunningham to face off against an untested congressional candidate, rather than Sanford, a former governor who had never lost an election in his decades-long political career.

Arrington’s win also gave Cunningham an opportunity to run on an anti-Donald Trump platform.

Though Cunningham campaigned against Sanford ahead of the GOP primary for voting too often with the president, Sanford had a reputation as one of Trump’s most vocal critics in Congress. Then, Sanford lost his primary, in part, because he wasn’t considered as loyal to Trump as Arrington, who made her alliance to Trump a centerpiece of her candidacy and secured Trump’s endorsement in a tweet just hours before the polls closed.

Now, Cunningham can frame his candidacy as a repudiation of the Trump Administration, trying to capture the anti-Republican fervor Democrats hope can help their party accomplish a “blue wave,” reclaiming a majority in the U.S. House. Democrats need to add 23 seats to do that.

In a statement, Cunningham said he is “the only candidate in this race who will fight to ban offshore drilling (and) overturn Washington’s job-killing tariffs that threaten our state and fix our traffic nightmare in the Lowcountry.”

Trump has proposed opening up the Eastern Seaboard to offshore drilling — a hot-button issue in the coastal 1st District — and promoted trade policies that could hurt the state’s economy. There also is little indication that Trump will be able to deliver this year on his promise to pass major legislation to improve infrastructure, including roads.

But Cunningham also underscored he is appealing to members of all political parties — a nod to the Republican officeholders who have endorsed him.

“We’re grateful to all the Democrats, Republicans and Independents who have joined this movement to bring honesty and integrity back to Congress,” Cunningham said. “We’re going to win this election because voters want a congressman who will break through the partisanship and division in Congress, not contribute to it.”

Being in the Red to Blue program does not guarantee Cunningham will win.

The last S.C. Democrat on the list was Rob Miller, a Marine Corps combat veteran whose campaign seemed viable after incumbent 2nd District U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-Lexington, shouted “you lie” at President Barack Obama during a 2009 address to Congress. Miller lost, 54 percent to 44 percent.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sought to compete in the 1st District in 2008, hoping Democrats would be energized around electing President Barack Obama. But, despite being on the Red to Blue list, Charleston businesswoman Linda Ketner lost to incumbent GOP U.S. Rep. Henry Brown, 52-48.

Republicans are signaling they aren’t worried about losing their hold on the 1st District.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has not added Arrington to its “Young Guns” program, similar to the Democrats’ Red to Blue initiative.

Also, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a “super PAC” that has field offices in dozens of districts nationwide to support Republican candidates and incumbents, hasn’t felt compelled to spend in South Carolina.

“President Trump’s support for Katie Arrington will be hugely helpful for her as she campaigns throughout the district,” said Congressional Leadership Fund spokeswoman Courtney Alexander.