The Daily Gamecock

Column: How Joe Cunningham lost

Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham of South Carolina addresses the crowd at the 2019 South Carolina Democratic Party State Convention on June 22, 2019, in Columbia, South Carolina.
Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham of South Carolina addresses the crowd at the 2019 South Carolina Democratic Party State Convention on June 22, 2019, in Columbia, South Carolina.

Democrat Joe Cunningham’s 2018 win in South Carolina’s traditionally Republican 1st Congressional District shocked the state two years ago. The blue wave did not survive 2020, though, and Cunningham’s 2020 loss to Nancy Mace reveals the limits of his centrist political style.

Cunningham’s upset victory in 2018 was a win against Katie Arrington, a Republican state representative who had upset the incumbent Mark Sanford in the GOP primary. Arrington ran hard on a pro-Donald Trump message; after her primary win, she proclaimed that “[the GOP is] the party of Donald J. Trump ... and now, congresswoman Katie Arrington.”

Arrington’s loyalty to Trump led her to support the president’s plan to allow offshore oil drilling along South Carolina’s coast. The Cunningham campaign seized on this opportunity and convinced two local Republican mayors to support Cunningham because of Arrington’s stance on offshore drilling.

This split in the local GOP, both along offshore drilling and Donald Trump fault lines, allowed for Cunningham to squeak by its nominee in the general election, where he won with 50.62% of the votes.

Two years later, those results would be flipped, this time with Republican Nancy Mace pulling off an upset win with 50.6%. What changed?

For one, Nancy Mace was a better candidate. She cruised to victory in the open Republican primary, winning more votes than her three opponents combined. Crucially, she ran against offshore drilling, with “Oppose Offshore Drilling” a point on the front page of her campaign website.

By negating the issues that Arrington faced in 2018, Mace ran a much stronger campaign. However, this alone doesn’t tell the whole story.

Cunningham’s slogan in both races was “Lowcountry Over Party,” an attempt to tell voters that he would put the Lowcountry’s interests over the Democratic Party’s while also asking voters themselves to put the Lowcountry’s interests over their own party’s interests.

However, these two meanings only make sense for appealing to Republican voters — electing Cunningham would already be in the Democratic Party’s interest, and Democratic voters aren’t worried about someone pushing for their own party’s goals.

This slogan, and its focus on Republicans, shows the purpose behind Cunningham’s moderate style. Since the first district is majority-Republican, he tried to appeal to the moderate wing of the Republican Party and his natural Democratic base.

This strategy clearly worked in 2018, but it failed in 2020 when it was opposed by a strong Republican candidate.

This failure demonstrates the inherent problems Democratic candidates face when they depend on Republican voters. After all, those voters are Republicans for a reason: They like the GOP more than they like the Democratic party.

A specific issue might sway them occasionally, as offshore drilling did in 2018, but unless there is a clear reason to not vote for the Republican nominee, they will – that’s what it means to be a Republican.

This means that Democrats can’t just beg Republican voters to occasionally cross the aisle. They actually need to convince them Democratic ideas are better. As a member of Congress, Cunningham had the perfect opportunity to try this. He could have used his time in Washington, D.C., to put forward a strong argument for why voters would actually benefit from Democratic leadership.

He did the opposite. When congressional Democrats introduced a pro-labor union bill in February 2019, he had the chance to make the case that labor unions would help South Carolinian workers (they would). Instead, he voted against the bill (siding with President Trump) and recited classic conservative anti-worker talking points.  

Earlier in his term, he didn’t even show up to vote on a bill that would have given workers more power to sue their bosses, again missing a chance to prove to voters he had their best interests at heart.

If Democrats want to win in traditionally Republican areas, then they need to be more than just Republicans with "D"s next to their names – because Republican voters will just vote for the actual Republicans.