Sunny weather, nice beaches, and good food are just some of the things commonly associated with Charleston, South Carolina. But now, residents of its congressional district, SC-01, may have to get used to a new phenomenon sweeping its way across many of America’s previously sleepy suburbs – expensive and divisive political battles.
In 2018, they came to Charleston in every way imaginable. In the primary, conservative state representative Katie Arrington used incumbent Mark Sanford’s disagreements with President Trump as well as his past ethical problems to upset him for the Republican nomination. Her success was short-lived, as little-known engineer, Democrat Joe Cunningham, used her unwavering support for the president as a bludgeon to sink her in a rapidly changing district.
In 2020, Cunningham hopes to ride the continued shifting of America’s suburbs to re-election in this Trump +13 district. But 2018 masked a troubling fact for Cunningham. His performance was an aberration, even within South Carolina. He was aided by Arrington’s weaknesses, and his district is not shifting left at the rate he needs. He may defy the odds again, but he is clearly one of the most endangered house incumbents.
SC-01 is a traditionally Republican suburban district. The Charleston suburbs have been home to many prototypical sleepy, upper middle class, predominantly white neighborhoods for decades. After redistricting, the state legislature drew SC-01 to be a safe GOP district, leaving out the bluest parts of Charleston and including Republican-leaning suburbs. Romney won the district by 18%, and Sanford won a special election to fill the district’s seat in Congress in 2013 by near double-digits even after he ended his gubernatorial term mired in scandal when he was caught slipping off to Argentina to have an affair.
But in 2016, politics in the area started to shift. Trump won the district by only 13% after improving on Romney’s nationwide performance by more than 2%. Trump carried South Carolina statewide by 14%. However, the district’s Republican roots were on full display as Senator Tim Scott carried the district by a huge margin of 28%, 4% better than his statewide margin of 24%.
The 2018 Race
Given the fact that Trump received over 50% of the vote and won the district by 13%, Sanford should have been on the glide path for re-election. But his vocal and consistent displeasure with the president, as well as his previous scandals from his time as governor, were dragging on his candidacy.
In the GOP primary, he got a challenge from Katie Arrington, a vocally pro-Trump state representative. She ran an upstart campaign that in many ways caught Sanford off guard. An election-day endorsement from President Trump gave Arrington a last-second boost and she defeated Sanford by a little over 4%, running up big margins in the non-Charleston areas of the district. The map below shows the results by precinct, with her State House district outlined in gold.
But as much as Arrington’s enthusiasm for Trump helped her defeat Sanford, it was a liability in the general election. Cunningham hit her for blindly being loyal to Trump and her unpopular support of offshore drilling. Cunningham also went to great lengths to appear moderate, and Arrington’s firm loyalty to Trump made an explosive combination. He pulled off what many considered to be a upset, winning by a little over 1% in November.
This win was particularly impressive when comparing it to the top of the ticket. While SC-01 is a suburban district, it did not speed to the left like many others. Henry McMaster, the appointed incumbent GOP Governor of South Carolina, won the district by 3.8% in his bid for a full term.
At first glance, Arrington doing worse than McMaster may not seem odd. After all, she directly tied herself to the president, and in a blue trending suburban district, it would not be unusual to see a state-level GOP candidate do better than a very polarizing federal one. But in reality, Arrington was an anomaly. Looking at the state as a whole, almost every single GOP House candidate did better than McMaster.
The only exceptions were Jim Clyburn’s (SC-06) GOP opponent in his deep blue district, and Arrington in SC-01. In fact, McMaster only won SC-02, centered around suburban Columbia, by 6%, barely more than he won SC-01 by. But Representative Joe Wilson outperformed him in every single precinct in his district and was never truly in danger. This points to Arrington being a uniquely weak candidate, even compared to William Timmons (SC-04), another non-incumbent GOP candidate.
Why Cunningham is in serious danger – and what might save him
Cunningham remains one of the most endangered incumbents in Congress, even given his district’s recent leftward shift. For starters, the district was only one point to the left of the state in 2016, and was only five points to the left in 2018. Donald Trump won South Carolina by 14% in 2016, so even if SC-01 remained five points to the left (meaning Trump wins it by 9%), Cunningham would need to outrun the top of the ticket by double what he did last time in order to remain in Congress. South Carolina as a state is unlikely to shift in favor of Democrats, as it has been one of the most stable states politically for the last twenty years.
Not all is lost for Cunnignham. He is an incumbent now and has all the benefits that come with that. When the 2020 Presidential election inevitably sucks up all the political coverage (especially now, with the COVID-19 pandemic taking up months of news), any challenger will have issues building their name recognition and fundraising to the necessary levels. Additionally, observers could be underestimating the durability of the shift in South Carolina’s suburbs. If they are, winning could be a much heavier lift for Cunningham in 2020 than it was in 2018. In spite of all this, however, Cunningham may be saved by the GOP primary.
The Republican primary
The frontrunner for the nomination is state representative Nancy Mace, who would be a strong challenger to Cunningham. Mace was the first woman to graduate from Charleston’s prestigious military college, The Citadel. However, she first has to get through three other candidates, two of which have local ties but are much lower profile, and one that is leaning heavily on his connections to Donald Trump. While Mace is likely to make it through, it’s possible that an upset, or a late Trump endorsement, could change the playing field and give Cunningham another gift.
But regardless of the GOP nominee, Cunningham will be at the top of every target list. Trump won SC-01 by 13%, receiving over 50% of the vote while Hillary Clinton barely cracked 40%. He is in danger, and unlike many Democratic freshmen the suburban shift alone is likely not coming to save him. He’ll again need to convince voters of his bipartisan credentials and drag his opponent’s reputation down. This will be no easy task, but Cunningham has proven experts wrong before. If he can deny them again, Democrats should begin to take notice of his abilities and strategy.
Editor’s Note: This article was initially titled “Joe Cunningham is in for the race of his life in SC-01”. In light of Rep. Cunningham’s recent COVID-19 diagnosis, we have adjusted the title.