Joe Cunningham didn’t waste any time addressing the biggest question his campaign for governor will face.
That is: Can he win?
Earlier this week, the former Charleston congressman announced he’s running for South Carolina governor in 2022, a move that surprised two people without internet in Walhalla … and absolutely no one else.
Cunningham’s been trolling Gov. Henry McMaster incessantly these past few months, pretty much ever since he narrowly lost his 1st District reelection bid in November. He’s penned op-eds, started a podcast and planted himself firmly in the public eye. His plans were pretty clear.
So now he’s gone all Luke Skywalker, giving some Democrats a new hope. They believe the moderate, hard-working and established candidate can be competitive statewide. Even with a “D” by his name.
And even if conventional wisdom, modern history and math says otherwise. Which is why Cunningham wisely tackled the question head-on in his announcement video.
“And to those who say a Democrat can’t win in South Carolina,” he says in a voiceover, while footage from his 2018 1st District win plays. “Well, we’ve heard that before.”
No Democrat has won statewide office in South Carolina since Jim Rex was elected superintendent of education in 2006 … by 455 votes. That same year, Robert Barber got 49.8% of the vote in the lieutenant governor’s race.
Former state Sen. Vincent Sheehan came within 4 points of Nikki Haley in the 2010 governor’s race, but lost their 2014 rematch by nearly 14 points.
Jim Hodges was the last South Carolina Democrat elected governor. He won in 1998 by promising a state lottery ... and because Gov. David Beasley was unpopular with some yahoos for suggesting the Confederate flag shouldn’t fly on the Statehouse dome.
Beasley, who went on to win a Nobel Prize, was ahead of his time.
In 2018, Cunningham defied expectations much like Hodges. He won a congressional district gerrymandered heavily in the GOP’s favor by focusing on a popular issue while facing an unpopular candidate. He lost by a narrow margin in 2020 on the same ballot as President Trump.
Dems point out that Cunningham outperformed Joe Biden here, so he has crossover appeal. But party insiders aren’t breaking out the champagne — or in this case, the craft beer — just yet.
The state is more polarized than it was in Hodges’ days, the rural counties all since turned red. Democratic operatives say South Carolina has a growing coalition of suburban and African American voters they hope will make the party more competitive in the future.
But this ain’t Georgia, they say, and we aren’t there yet. The pundits tend to agree.
“It’s going to be very, very difficult, but nothing that’s impossible,” College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts says. “When you look at South Carolina exit polls, 41% of voters identify as Republicans, 30% as Democrats and 29% as independents. That’s an 11-point disadvantage right out of the gate. It’s a really hard road to overcome.”
Democrats say Cunningham isn’t even assured of winning the party’s nomination, and suggest his early announcement was a brushback pitch aimed at potential challengers. That may have worked on some, but Cunningham likely still has to face state Sen. Mia McLeod — a formidable opponent.
The outcome of a race between those two would come down to what the turnout looks like, Dems say.
Cunningham’s fortunes also depend on the GOP primary. In a sane world, Gov. McMaster would walk away with the nomination and be the heavy favorite. But some Republicans fear McMaster will face a challenge from the right.
This is, after all, a party flirting with electing Lin Wood its chairman. Which is why, some loyalists say, McMaster has tacked hard right in recent months.
Well, that and the fact that he managed to make both sides mad during the pandemic.
If Republicans upset McMaster and nominate a complete lunatic (like, say, Lin Wood), that helps the Democratic nominee. Some.
Republicans will point to Jaime Harrison’s shellacking last year as proof of the Democrats’ weakness here, and it’s a fair point. But Cunningham is far more moderate than Harrison was, no matter what folks who wouldn’t vote for him anyway might say.
So, if Cunningham raises his name recognition and everything falls his way, he has a path. A very narrow one.
The faithful will hope and others can scoff, but Cunningham realizes only one thing’s for certain.
You must enter to win.