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Congratulations Joe Cunningham: Now you're a marked man

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Democrat Joe Cunningham won a Charleston congressional seat Tuesday that had been in GOP hands since the Reagan era. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Joe Cunningham's win Tuesday ranks among the biggest upsets in modern South Carolina history.

Now comes the real test: winning re-election.

There's little chance Republicans are going to sit back and let Charleston's seat in Congress easily stay in Democratic hands.

He has a target on his back. They have to be embarrassed. Bigly.

"Winning back the 1st District in 2020 is our top priority," S.C. GOP Chairman Drew McKissick said. "It becomes a full-time project." 

It's never too early to speculate who from the GOP side could jump in. Departing incumbent U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford just has to run again.

His life story and political second acts wouldn't be complete until he comes back from the dead — again — to go back to D.C. 

Katie Arrington, Tuesday's clobbered Republican, put a stake in the ground Wednesday when she blamed Sanford's lack of an endorsement for her loss.

"2020 is just a few years away," she said in an exit barb foreshadowing her plans.

These two on stage again. Has to happen. But likely won't. When Palmetto Politics asked Sanford on Wednesday if he were thinking about 2020 yet he declined to answer, saying, “I don’t want to go there at this time.”

Other names in the GOP whisper mill include: gubernatorial candidate Catherine Templeton, state Rep. Nancy Mace, Charleston City Councilman Mike Seekings, Charleston County Councilman Elliott Summey, state Sens. Larry Grooms, Chip Campsen and Tom Davis, and Charleston GOP Chair Larry Kobrovsky, just to name a few who party members suggest.

Summey said he's already taken consultant phone calls and is scheduling meetings. There could be a dozen or more GOP hopefuls. 

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Grooms said all the candidate chatter now amounts to a spit in the wind until Sanford definitively says something.

"I think whatever happens depends on what Sanford decides to do," he said.

Sanford's name ID, along with his estimated $1.5 million war chest, would be enough to drown out much of the field next time around.

If Sanford does get in, he may have to run on his own. McKissick, the state GOP chairman, used words including "ingratitude," "poor taste and poor class" to describe Sanford's decision not to support Arrington, costing Republicans both the seat and hundreds of thousands of dollars in wasted effort.  

Cunningham can — and should — savor this win for a while, at least until the suds from his tour of coastal breweries dry up. He'll have to assemble a staff (both here in the district and in Washington) and meet the other members of the new Democratic House majority. That starts Tuesday with his Capitol Hill orientation. 

Some time after that, he'll almost assuredly have to take on the grind of daily fundraising calls. By some estimates, members of Congress are encouraged to spend three or four hours a day dialing for dollars.

National Democrats will also have to calculate how much they are willing to spend to defend the seat in the upcoming presidential election.

Realistically, Cunningham has about a year to solidify himself in the district before the Republicans chasing him start grumbling louder.

But there is a lot in his favor, especially if he does well in protecting the region and Donald Trump stays on the ballot. One reason behind Cunningham's win is that Democrats, independents and GOP moderates rejected the Re-Trumplicanism that Arrington so warmly embraced.

Cunningham won the seat on a 50.6 to 49.2 margin, a difference of about 4,000 votes out of 286,000 cast.

So despite all odds against it, there was a blue wave in the 1st District last week. Cunningham's job now is to make sure there's another wave behind it.

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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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