South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, which runs along the state’s southeastern coast, was home to quite an interesting political saga in the 2018 elections. It all started in June 2018, when incumbent Rep. Mark Sanford (R), who served as governor before his time in Congress, was defeated in the Republican primary by conservative state legislator Katie Arrington. In the weeks following her upset victory in the primary, Arrington was seriously injured in a car accident and had to step away from the campaign trail while she recovered. In the November elections, which saw the Democrats net 41 seats, Arrington lost to Democrat Joe Cunningham, a first-time candidate. Considering the lean of the district — Trump carried it by 13% in 2016 — Cunningham was something of a surprise winner. An ocean engineer, he repeatedly highlighted Arrington’s support for offshore drilling — a practice unpopular with voters from both parties, considering the district’s picturesque and bustling coastline. As he seeks to hold on to this Republican-leaning district, let’s go over the events that led up to Cunningham’s election.
Sanford goes hiking on the Appalachian Trail
As mentioned, this district was held by former Gov. Mark Sanford, who was elected in a 2013 special election after then-Rep. Tim Scott (R) was appointed to the U.S. Senate. Sanford began his second tour of duty in Congress after 2013, as he previously represented the district from 1995 to 2001. He has had a long, and at times controversial, career in state politics. He gained national attention after he disappeared from the state for a week in June 2009. His whereabouts were unknown to his staff, his wife, his security detail and even the Lieutenant Governor, who’s tasked with assuming the responsibilities of the governorship if the Governor is unable to fulfill them. Though he had informed his staff that he was taking a hike on the Appalachian Trail, it was later revealed that he went to go visit his mistress in Argentina. After the saga, his wife and their sons moved out of the governor’s mansion and the legislature began an impeachment investigation, though the resolution to impeach was voted down in committee. His wife announced in December 2009 that she was filing for divorce, which a judge granted in 2010.
2013 Special Election
At the end of his second term as governor, he moved to a condominium in the Charleston area and became a contributor at Fox News. In 2012, conservative Republican Sen. Jim DeMint announced that he would resign to become President of the Heritage Foundation. Republican Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Rep. Tim Scott to his seat, which created a vacancy in the 1st District — triggering a special election. Sanford entered the race for his old congressional seat in early 2013, but had to make it through a crowded Republican primary. Despite his many flaws, he had several things going for him: for one , he started with near universal name recognition in the area. He finished first in the Republican primary with about 37% of the vote. But because he did not get more than 50%, he was forced into a runoff with the second place finisher, former Charleston Councilman Curtis Bostic. Sanford won the runoff vote 57%-43%, and went on to face Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, an economist and the sister of late night television personality Stephen Colbert.
Though Sanford was on track for an unlikely comeback victory, hints of scandal kept surfacing: the National Republican Congressional Committee withdrew their support from Sanford after his now ex-wife Jenny accused him of trespassing. Colbert Busch, however, failed to capitalize off of Sanford’s flaws. “The political novice failed to connect with voters, her campaign themes seemed uninspired, and she made relatively few public appearances compared to the ubiquitous and people-friendly Sanford,” said the 2014 edition of the Almanac of American Politics. In the end, Sanford’s skills as a retail politician helped him to a 54%-45% win.
The 2018 Election
After Donald Trump’s 2016 election, Sanford was one of the few congressional Republicans that would openly criticize the president — this made him vulnerable in an electorate that was becoming increasingly loyal to Trump. Even before Trump took office, the first big sign of Sanford’s weakness was in his 2016 primary, which he won by a closer-than-expected 56%-44% margin. In the 2018 primary, he faced a high-profile challenge from State Rep. Katie Arrington. In his endorsement of Arrington, President Trump had strong words for Sanford. “Mark Sanford has been very unhelpful to me in my campaign to MAGA. He is MIA and nothing but trouble. He is better off in Argentina,” the President said in a tweet. Arrington narrowly defeated Sanford 51%-47%, and went on to face Democrat Joe Cunningham in the general election. After his defeat, Sanford launched a quixotic 2020 presidential run, but it went nowhere.
Throughout the campaign, election forecasters saw Arrington as the favorite. Both the Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball rated the race as “Leans Republican.” Trump carried this district by 13 points in the 2016 election, and after his 2013 win, Sanford faced weak — if any — opposition in general elections. But Cunningham forced Republicans to go on defense, and there were some telltale signs of a competitive race: Republicans placed an ad buy in the Charleston area in the final week of the 2018 campaign and President Trump himself even recorded a robocall on Arrington’s behalf.
The two candidates had completely different campaign styles. Cunningham tried to run a campaign centered on local issues. He repeatedly touted his stance against offshore drilling during the campaign and earned endorsements from Republican officials as a result. Arrington, meanwhile, tried to nationalize the race. She tried to tie Cunningham to national Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and made her support of President Trump front and center. Still, Cunningham prevailed over Arrington 51%-49%, becoming the first Democrat to represent this coastal district in 40 years; he also became the first white Democrat elected to congress from a Deep South state since Rep. John Barrow’s 2012 re-election in Georgia. Though Arrington won 4 of the 5 counties in the district, it was not enough to overcome Cunningham’s 17,000-vote margin in populous Charleston County, which cast more than 40% of the vote.
Cunningham as a Congressman
Cunningham has sought to establish himself as a moderate since being elected. His first act as a member of the House was voting against Nancy Pelosi for Speaker, being one of 13 Democrats to do so. He joined the Blue Dog Coalition, a faction of moderate to conservative House Democrats. He also scored a major legislative victory in 2019 when his bill to ban offshore drilling passed the House with the support of 12 Republicans — that effort even earned praise from South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster. “I want to thank Joe Cunningham and the others in Congress for raising that question in the United States Congress,” the Republican said of Cunningham.
Cunningham’s reelection outlook
Given the district’s partisan lean, Cunningham naturally emerged as a top target for national Republicans. In the GOP primary this month, Republicans nominated State Rep. Nancy Mace — unlike Arrington, Mace has taken a stance against offshore drilling. She was the first woman to graduate from The Citadel, a military college in Charleston — an achievement that she features prominently in her campaign messaging. Mace’s first foray into electoral politics wasn’t successful — she ran against Sen. Lindsey Graham in the 2014 primary and took just 6% — but she later won a seat in the legislature. Though she was endorsed by House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy and GOP Whip Steve Scalise, she did not completely clear the GOP field. Perhaps her most high-profile challenger in the GOP primary was Kathy Landing, a councilwoman from Mount Pleasant who was endorsed by the House Freedom Caucus and former Sen. Jim DeMint. But Mace managed to win the primary in a landslide, avoiding a runoff with 58% of the vote to Landing’s 26%. Two other candidates, Bikers for Trump founder Chris Cox and housing administrator Brad Mole, got 10% and 7% of the vote, respectively.
Avoiding a runoff allows the Mace campaign to quickly pivot to the general election in what will be one of the most high-profile House races in the country. Every major election analyst rates SC-1 as a “Tossup,” of now. I asked political analyst J. Miles Coleman, an associate editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, about Cunningham’s advantages and disadvantages. He says Cunningham’s biggest advantage so far is probably fundraising. Cunningham has $2.6 million on hand while Mace has a little more than $560,000 — though as the general election gets underway, that gap should narrow. He also noted that Democratic Senate candidate Jaime Harrison could have some down-ballot effects in races like SC-1, if he can run a competitive race. When Cunningham won in 2018, Gov. McMaster carried the district, but the margin was just 4%. However, he noted that one of Cunningham’s disadvantages is the fact that Trump will probably win SC-1 again, which means he would have to outrun Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in order to pull off another victory.
The Lowcountry is going to be ground zero in the battle for control of the House. Joe Cunningham is going to have a fight on his hands if he wants to pull off another victory. This is a must-win race for Republicans if they want to have any shot at reclaiming the House majority, and they have a good candidate with a compelling backstory. It’s hard for any outside observer to tell who has the edge, which justifies the “tossup” ratings. But expect both parties to campaign heavily here leading up to November. For Republicans, this district isn’t necessarily a majority-maker, but if they recapture SC-1, it could be a sign that other vulnerable Democrats are in trouble.