Congressman-elect Joe Cunningham wades into deeper waters

by Bill Davis | News Editor

If you thought 2018 was West Ashley’s “time” because of its growing political power on City Council and the mayor hailing from here, don’t forget newly-elected U.S. Congressman Joe Cunningham (D-SC. 1) also calls this part of town home.

More accurately, he’ll be calling West Ashley home base for the next two years beginning in January after defeating state representative Republican Katie Arrington in a surprise result last month.

A district that was drawn as a gift to the GOP voted for Cunningham for a host of reasons politicos are still struggling to accurately define: her gaffes on offshore drilling, lack of support from her national party, his good looks and refusal to take political action committee money, and so on.

Regardless of how it happened, Cunningham spent a week in the nation’s capital last month for an orientation session on how to staff and run a congressional office.

The West Of Free Press caught up with Cunningham while he was back, but still running around, getting ready to move up to Washington. The first question we wanted to know was where he was going to sleep when he moved up there.

His predecessor Mark Sanford famously claimed to have slept in his office to save money at one point and his “freshman classmate” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has taken heat for wondering how she was going to be able to afford an apartment in the D.C.-area.

“That’s still to be determined,” says Cunningham, with a laugh, adding that he was more focused on staffing his office first.

We also wanted to know his priorities when he got there. Cunningham doubled down on his pledge not to support Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the Leader.

“I had to tell her the same,” when he was on the orientation trip. Cunningham says that he’s following through with his campaign promise to “reach across the aisle” and work with Republicans.

Likewise, Cunningham underscores that he didn’t run for office to impeach President Donald Trump. “That’s not our focus; the Mueller investigation needs to continue, but that has zero to do with increasing healthcare, building infrastructure, or stopping offshore drilling.”

That Cunningham is striking such a conciliatory tone makes sense on one hand: he is serving in a Republican district as a Democrat. If he wants his tenure in Washington to go past two years, he’ll have to make the case that he can deliver on issues important on both sides of the aisle.

That being said, he may also be attempting a risky balancing act that could result in both Dems and GOPs bombing on the very junior congressman. But he stuck the landing on his balancing routine into a seat in Congress.

He credits having steered clear of negative “mudslinging” in his campaign as a major reason he got nearly 4,000 more votes than Arrington, who beat Sanford in the Republican primary.

Some have cast his win as proof that the Lowcountry hates offshore drilling more than it loves Donald Trump, whom Arrington strongly aligned herself with, and flip-flopped on her stance on drilling later in the race.

“I would say the offshore drilling issue certainly played a part,” says Cunningham. “But our camp also ran on local issues, and set ourselves apart from the ‘D.C. narrative’ … it offered a stark contrast.”

Gibbs Knotts, chair of the political science department at the College of Charleston, pored through the results of several Winthrop Polls, which is the work of another Palmetto State academic, Scott Huffmon.

Knotts says the polling shows that the state as a whole was more opposed to offshore polling than it was enamored with Trump, whose approval ratings are far below his voter win margin from 2016.

Knotts says that a deeper dive into the polling would probably show that the closer a voter lives to the ocean, the more likely they would be opposed to offshore drilling, regardless of party affiliation.

Knotts calls the 1st a “plus-12” district, in which a Democrat has to overcome a 12-point margin in oder to win. Going forward, he says Cunningham is showing good sense to reach across the aisle. “Especially since people are already announcing and lining up to run against him in two years, like Arrington and Sanford,” says Knotts.

Knotts says the voting patterns show a disturbing pattern in Mount Pleasant and Daniel Island for GOP brass in South Carolina. Because, he says in suburban areas like that, Republicans should win in a walk.

But, Knotts says, they didn’t, and that may be the long-term referendum on Trump: they like his policies but are far too turned off by his rhetoric and tone to stay within party lines in the future.

Cunningham doesn’t seem eager to restart his fundraising, which he trounced Arrington in, too. “I just sent back some PAC money,” he says. “I rejected it on the campaign trail, but it’s still ongoing,” adding that he would continue to fundraise in the future from individuals.

Divisions aside, Cunningham hit a chord in voters with his slogan, “Lowcountry over Party.” It remains to be seen if voters will be willing in two years to return to “Party over Lowcountry.”

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