State Politics

How Republicans plan to beat SC’s Joe Cunningham in 2020

Congressional debate questions Katie Arrington’s loyalty to Trump

In South Carolina's 1st District U.S. House race, Republican Katie Arrington debated Democrat Joe Cunningham where they were asked about Donald Trump's policies.
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In South Carolina's 1st District U.S. House race, Republican Katie Arrington debated Democrat Joe Cunningham where they were asked about Donald Trump's policies.

National Republicans are fine-tuning their talking points for taking out Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham in 2020.

Top operatives at the National Republican Congressional Committee say Cunningham’s S.C. seat is among the Top 5 races the GOP should not have lost in last year’s midterms. Now, their plan is to cast the 1st District congressman as complicit in what they are calling the Democratic Party’s radical, far-left agenda.

Their challenge could be that Cunningham doesn’t exactly fit the “radical” description.

Unlike some of the more liberal firebrands who helped Democrats win the House majority in the 2018 midterms, Cunningham is a moderate who has aligned himself on Capitol Hill with the centrist New Democrat Coalition and fiscally conservative Blue Dogs.

And, while some other freshmen ultimately wavered, Cunningham lived up to his promise to vote for someone other than California Democrat Nancy Pelosi for speaker.

Cunningham also isn’t a co-sponsor of the “Green New Deal” resolution, a proposal to tackle climate change championed by Democratic socialist U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, which Republicans are touting as example of the other party’s extremism.

And during the partial government shutdown, Cunningham broke with Democrats to vote for several Republican procedural measures to give federal workers back-pay prior to the government reopening.

None of this is stopping the National Republican Congressional Committee, the GOP’s main fundraising arm for U.S. House candidates, from moving forward with a messaging strategy that links Cunningham with the fringe elements of the Democratic Party.

“A lot of the rhetoric in these seats was, ‘I will go to Washington and make a difference and work together.’ But that’s not happening,” said NRCC communications director Chris Pack, in a briefing with McClatchy, referring to self-styled centrists like Cunningham elected in the Democratic wave last fall. “These Democrats are showing voters they are willing to quietly sit on their hands while the far left wing of the (Democratic Party) dictates policy.

“Why weren’t they speaking up and making noise when it (came) to reopening up the government by compromising?” asked Pack, referring to Cunningham and other House Democrats who, without fanfare, voted for GOP efforts to give federal workers back-pay. “Why not get a band of moderates together, if you really are a moderate, and say, ‘No, Pelosi, enough is enough.’ ... The extremist far-left is the tail wagging the dog.”

Cunningham campaign spokesman Tyler Jones was unimpressed with the Republican committee’s playbook.

“Cunningham has only been in office for a little over a month, and he’s already delivered on four major campaign promises: Voting for new leadership, introducing a bill to ban offshore drilling, rejecting corporate PAC money and being one of the most independent members of Congress,” said Jones. “If Joe Cunningham cured cancer, the NRCC would say he didn’t do it fast enough.”

In the months ahead, Republican strategists said the NRCC is expected to recruit candidates who have deep allegiances to President Donald Trump, and South Carolina’s 1st District is no exception.

“President Trump motivates the base like no Republican in recent memory has been able to do,” Pack told McClatchy.

But the 2018 Republican campaign in S.C. 1 shows the perils of indiscriminately promoting pro-Trump candidates across the electoral map.

Last year, former state Rep. Katie Arrington beat then-incumbent U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford in the Republican primary in large part by drawing distinctions between her support for Trump and the former governor’s unabashed disapproval of the president. However, Arrington’s pro-Trump stance was not enough to carry her over the finish line in the November election against Cunningham.

In the coastal district, Cunningham made his opposition to offshore oil drilling a key issue, while Arrington was seen as equivocating on how hard she would push back against Trump’s interest in expanding the practice.

Finding a Republican candidate who strikes a balance between loyalty to Trump and sensitivity to local issues will be key to beating Cunningham in 2020.

“Obviously, you’re allowed to have areas where you disagree with the president,” Pack said, “and I’m sure our candidates wil

Last week, the Atlanta-based firm Trafalgar Group surveyed more than 2,000 likely GOP primary voters on their preferred candidate to challenge Cunningham. Those surveyed named Arrington and Sanford as their top two choices, followed by state Sens. Tom Davis of Beaufort and Larry Grooms of Charleston, and state Rep. Nancy Mace, also of Charleston

National Republican Congressional Committee political director Justin Richards would not comment to McClatchy on recruitment efforts in the 1st District. But he said, as of early February, the organization had heard from more than two-dozen potential candidates in the country’s most competitive districts, more than half of them women.

Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she reports on the South Carolina congressional delegation for The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.

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