COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Democrats trying to flip a U.S. House seat in South Carolina for the first time since 1986 are pouring most of their state efforts into a coastal district where Republican primary voters ousted the incumbent, instead choosing an enthusiastic backer of President Donald Trump.
Democrat Joe Cunningham, an ocean engineer and construction-industry lawyer making his first run for elective office, has raised more money than his opponent and is getting endorsements from Republican mayors and other local officials.
Cunningham is facing state Rep. Katie Arrington, who handed U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford his first election loss in 16 races, and then survived a serious car crash just days after the June primary.
Arrington found a crack by taking on Sanford’s criticism of Trump’s comments and tone, calling him a “Never Trumper.”
Now Cunningham is trying to use Arrington’s ardent support for Trump and his policies against her as he tries to be the first Democrat since 1980 to be elected to the U.S. House from the 1st District, which stretches from Charleston to Hilton Head Island.
Signs suggest that if there’s ever a House seat in South Carolina that will flip in this political climate, this could be the one. The National Republican Congressional Committee had said earlier in the fall that it had no plans to spend money on the race; now it’s buying ads for Arrington with just days to go before votes are counted.
No issue better shows what Cunningham is trying to do than offshore drilling. During the primary, Arrington said she supports all of Trump’s energy policies, including the possibility of drilling for oil in the Atlantic Ocean off the U.S. coast.
Cunningham went to Republican mayors and other leaders in coastal towns like the Isle of Palms and got their endorsement by saying he would fight any drilling off their beaches, an important issue for wealthy retirees attracted to the salt life. Census data shows 57 percent of the people living in the district moved to South Carolina from somewhere else.
“Our beaches, our coastline, our waterways are our pride and joy in the 1st District and I’ll fight like hell to protect them,” Cunningham said in a recent debate.
Since her primary win, Arrington has said she’s personally against offshore drilling, and is the only candidate who has the president’s ear to change his mind.
“I will have a seat at the table,” Arrington said. “Mr. Cunningham wrote a letter that no one will read for the next two years.”
The 1st District is richer, more educated and less conservative than much of South Carolina, with a median income of $66,400, some $17,000 higher than the state’s median. Its voters went 53.5 percent for Trump in 2016, several points lower than any other Republican-represented district.
Arrington draws a sharp line, suggesting a vote for Cunningham is a vote to turn the nation over to liberals. She calls this race a fight between good and evil, and a battle for survival.
Cunningham casts Arrington as a hyper-partisan street-fighter who isn’t a good match for the gentle vibe of South Carolina’s Lowcountry.
“I don’t know how you can say you’re going up to Congress to serve everyone when you are classifying some people as good and other people as evil,” he said.
Arrington, 47, talks about starting out on the graveyard shift at Denny’s and working her way up to a leading role in a defense contracting business. She promises to serve no more than eight years and donate most of her congressional salary to charity.
Cunningham, 36, often mentions his son, born in February. He even brought him up on a question about building and expanding new roads and bridges as South Carolina’s coast continues to boom. “At 6 p.m. every night I want to be home because that’s when I give my son a bath,” Cunningham said.
South Carolina has not sent a new Democrat to Congress since Jim Clyburn won the 6th District in 1992, which had just been redrawn to have a majority of minority voters. The state hasn’t flipped a U.S. House seat from Republican to Democrat since 1986, when Liz Patterson — the only woman the state has ever sent to Congress — won a 4th District seat left open when Republican Carroll Campbell successfully ran for governor.
With a few weeks left before the election, Arrington raised $1.4 million and spent about $1.3 million. Cunningham had raised $1.9 million and spent about $1.6 million. In comparison, Democrat Mary Geren, a Democrat running hard in South Carolina’s quite conservative western 3rd District against Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, only managed to raise $269,000 for her campaign.
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