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Climate change views could be a decider in the Mace-Cunningham SC congressional race

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Republican challenger state Rep. Nancy Mace and Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham greet each other with an elbow bump at their SCETV studio debate on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Charleston Republican congressional candidate Nancy Mace may be making the same mistake with environmentally conscious Lowcountry voters that Katie Arrington did two years ago.

And that's by not embracing climate change science outright.

During Monday's SCETV debate with Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, Mace was asked if she agreed with the overwhelming majority of scientists who say climate change is happening and that man-made greenhouse emissions are responsible.

That includes whether it's led to more extreme weather events.

Mace pointed to her opposition to offshore drilling, acknowledged sea level rise and a city of Charleston that's both flooding and sinking due to landfill and over-development.

Then she said, for a definitive answer, the science is still out.

"My opponent is going to tell you I'm a climate denier, which is dishonest," she said. "My opponent has said that the science is settled on this. Well, the science is never settled. Scientists will tell you that."

She went on to say, "Scientists once said the Earth is flat and it's not, and so these things are evolving, as well." 

Cunningham pounced.

"I'm going to say what my opponent Nancy Mace won't say: I believe in science," he said. "And it shouldn't be that hard to say."

Mace may be speaking Republican talking points. Or she may hold that science is in flux in a year when the National Hurricane Center went through the alphabet on named Atlantic storms.

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Or she may be following the lead of her former 2016 campaign boss, President Donald Trump, who told California officials last month, "I don't think science knows, actually," in regard to climate change and forest fires there.

But her position mirrors the 2018 misread Arrington made in the course of defeating incumbent Republican Mark Sanford in the 1st District GOP primary.

Like Mace, Arrington was a Charleston-area state lawmaker looking to make the jump to Congress. But she started off on the wrong foot to many by supporting exploration for oil and gas.

“When we talk about offshore drilling, nothing’s happening," she said at one forum. "It’s President Trump and I support what he did. He lifted the ban on offshore drilling.”

After she won the GOP primary, Arrington flip-flopped, saying she opposed drilling but that, as a Republican, she had a better chance of getting Trump's ear than any Democrat would.  

Her shift on drilling wasn't the only deciding factor that sent voters and coastal mayors to Cunningham, but it was enough of a decision-maker; Cunningham won in a 4,000-vote upset.

College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts, who watched the debate on Monday, said coastal voters are more attuned to the changing environment than those in "some district that's not impacted."

Questioning the degree of human impact on climate change may play to parts of the conservative base, he said, but in the soggy 1st District "you can't be wishy-washy; you can't be 'kind of a little, but ...' "

Mace told Palmetto Politics her stance is the pragmatic one, saying history shows global warming is cyclical and that she wants all views at the table.

"I still have questions of how much it is man-made and how much of it is natural," she said.

The candidates will face off again at 7 p.m. Tuesday inside the Charleston Southern University Lightsey Chapel Auditorium for a debate hosted by WCIV ABC News Channel 4.

Expect Cunningham to highlight Mace's climate change views through to Election Day.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 843-937-5551. Follow him on Twitter at @skropf47.

Political Editor

Schuyler Kropf is The Post and Courier political editor. He has covered every major political race in South Carolina dating to 1988, including for U.S. Senate, governorship, the Statehouse and Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.

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