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Nancy Mace prepares to take her seat in Congress; Joe Cunningham still wants to serve SC

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Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham and Republican state Rep. Nancy Mace bump elbows at the their Oct. 6, 2020, debate at Charleston Southern University's Lightsey Chapel Auditorium. As Mace's profile rises in Washington after her 1st District victory, it begs the question about what Cunningham's political future holds. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

On Sunday, Rep.-elect Nancy Mace will make history as the first Republican woman to be sworn in to Congress from South Carolina. 

The working single mother has capitalized on that since she narrowly defeated Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham for South Carolina's 1st Congressional District seat in November. Mace has been making the rounds with near-daily television interviews and headlines that identify her as part of a new brand of GOP politicians in Washington, D.C. 

But as Mace's profile rises in Washington, it begs the question about what Cunningham's political future holds.

The one-term politician made history in 2018 when he flipped a district in South Carolina that had been controlled by the GOP for 40 years. But, in the era of President Donald Trump, he wasn't able to repeat the victory two years later. 

In an exclusive interview with The Post and Courier this week, Cunningham said he wants to stay in South Carolina and hopes to serve the public in some capacity. 

"I've seen some of my colleagues announced they're running right after they concede," Cunningham said. "It's important to take some time to reflect. But I don't think my time serving South Carolina is over. This defeat didn't break my spirit."

This comes after speculation that the former congressman is potentially eyeing the governor's mansion in 2022. Earlier in December, the web domain was registered in South Carolina. 

Tyler Jones, Cunningham's political strategist, wouldn't confirm or deny if the domain was connected to them but said it "appears to have been registered privately." 

Cunningham would likely face an uphill battle to win a statewide office as a Democrat, especially in a red state that overwhelmingly handed an election victory to Sen. Lindsey Graham in the most expensive political race in history against challenger Jaime Harrison.

But Cunningham said he cares about South Carolina. He did mention that he had been approached by people connected to President-elect Joe Biden to gauge his interest in potentially serving in the new administration. 

But Cunningham said it was never really on his radar. He's a South Carolina loyalist through and through, and he wants to invest in the Palmetto State.

"A lot of people reached out and offered support or asked about some places I could land," he said. "But I love Charleston. It's hard to uproot here. For some people in other cities maybe D.C. is a step up, but for me it's a big step down from here."

The pop-top heard 'round the world

In the months following his loss, Cunningham has taken some time to unwind and reflect on what he learned in Washington. 

During the sit-down at Jones' offices on Johns Island, Cunningham cracked a beer from Mount Pleasant-based Westbrook Brewing Co., put his feet up on a coffee table and leaned back on a couch. 

It was an on-brand moment for the politician whose support of craft breweries was a major talking point, and one that shows the authenticity of his decision to crack a beer on the House floor earlier last month during his farewell address. 

Alcohol is not allowed on the House floor, and Cunningham said he got yelled at by a congressional clerk for the move. It was a small price to pay for going out in style.

But Jones said the move wasn't a gimmick. It was quite literally a last-minute move that Cunningham had thought of the day of the speech. 

The Democratic congressman ran to a nearby liquor store, bought a six-pack and took one of them and placed it in his pocket. He handed the remaining five to the cashier and wished them a Merry Christmas.

During his speech, he called out GOP rhetoric and D.C. hypocrisy that he felt was unbecoming of politicians. Then, he raised his beer and flipped open the pop-top.  

The moment went viral, and was covered by every media outlet from Fox News and Newsmax to CNN and MSNBC. The way Jones and Cunningham see it, everyone got to hear those words of wisdom. 

And in an era of hyperpartisanship, name-calling and divisiveness, Cunningham was happy that he cut through the noise.

"Bipartisanship doesn't go out of fashion, and it doesn't go out of style," Cunningham said. "Regardless if it can survive, it's the right thing to do. It's the opposing force that's fighting against extremes in both parties."

In his last months in office, he's taken aim at Trump's dealings with Congress regarding COVID-19-related stimulus payments. Notably, he also took aim at Gov. Henry McMaster for not instituting a statewide mask mandate. 

"Something has to be done about it. Members of his own party aren't holding him accountable," Cunningham said. "South Carolina deserves better leadership than that."

Can't play favorites 

Mace is already establishing herself as a different kind of Republican. 

Even though Trump supported Mace's candidacy through tweets, phone calls to supporters and speeches, she is not backing GOP attempts to decertify Biden's election results happening her first week in Washington. 

Some fellow GOP colleagues from South Carolina's delegation — Reps. Jeff Duncan, Ralph Norman and Joe Wilson — have been vocally opposing the Electoral College's results. Mace, however, sees it differently. 

"I’m not going to be voting with any of those folks,” Mace said last week. “I am not going to vote to overturn the results of the Electoral College because I do not believe that Congress knows better than voters or better than the states.”

Additionally, she's adopted a seemingly more bipartisan tone when it comes to her messaging. When Cunningham cracked a beer, she tweeted a video of herself doing the same and applauded his civil sentiments. 

While many GOP politicians are decrying mask-wearing, she's embraced it and said people should have the freedom to choose. 

Her new staff is incredibly diverse, including one member who organized efforts to legalize marijuana and help loosen regulations on cannabis-related businesses. Mace has said she supports efforts to legalize the drug, both medically and recreationally. 

But notably, Mace is in the minority in the House. With the future of the Senate in the air, it means that she could be facing potential headwinds with a Democratic-controlled executive and legislative branch. 

So Mace said she's focusing on how she can best serve voters in her district. 

She's maintained many of Cunningham's staff and both offices in Mount Pleasant and Beaufort to keep constituent services stable. Mace also updated the software used to handle casework and said it should expedite the time it takes to assist 1st District voters. 

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mace was only allowed one guest for her swearing-in ceremony on Sunday. As the mother of two children, she knew she couldn't play favorites. So she decided to forgo having a guest.

"Neither child is more important than the other," Mace said. "But I'm going to have them with me."

Her 11-year-old daughter and her 14-year-old son likely will be watching their mom be sworn in on C-SPAN while sitting in her D.C. office. 

Mace said she's ready to get to work and is eager to find out her committee assignments. 

"I'm very excited and humbled by the job and task ahead," Mace said. "When I landed in Reagan National for the first time, I cried. I'm really honored."

Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5713. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

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