When congressional candidate Joe Cunningham introduced himself to voters in his first general election TV ad, he zeroed in on three descriptors: construction attorney, ocean engineer and new dad.

One key identifier did not come up: He's a Democrat. 

The omission is strategic. The 1st Congressional District, which runs from Charleston to Hilton Head Island, hasn't sent a Democrat to Washington since 1981. That means for any candidate running in ruby red South Carolina, appealing to Republicans and independents is a must.

"Of course, it's part of our strategy. It has to be," Cunningham spokesman Tyler Jones said of courting GOP voters. "We can't win unless we have Republicans cross over and vote for us."

It's why Cunningham's second TV ad features self-proclaimed Republicans explaining why they will buck their own party and vote for Cunningham over Republican state Rep. Katie Arrington on Nov. 6. 

This year is a midterm election where President Donald Trump looms as a wild card, but the thinking that Cunningham needs thousands of GOP crossovers could be overblown, said College of Charleston political science professor Jordan Ragusa.

"Conceivably, he may not need to woo that many Republicans at all. He will have to flip some, for sure, but maybe not as many as most people would think," Ragusa said.

Just how many Republicans Cunningham needs — and where they would come from — depends on whom you ask.

Two theories and a reminder

Ragusa said historically speaking, the winning presidential party tends to lose congressional seats in the midterm election that follows.

There are two theories: One is that midterms are a referendum on the presidential election, and voters are seeking an alternative.

The other is the "surge-and-decline" theory that suggests presidential elections see greater voter turnout because of the top-of-the-ticket contest.

Those presidential election voters tend to stay home in the midterms. That puts the onus on Arrington. 

"Even though Donald Trump won this district by 13 points, there's no way that Katie Arrington can replicate that," Ragusa said. "She's going to start with maybe 5-8 points less than that because there’s likely to be less turnout among Republicans relative to Democrats."

It's why Republicans are urging their party faithful to get to the polls. 

"No victories in politics are ever permanent," S.C. Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick reminded a group of Trump-loyalists at an event this month in Mount Pleasant.

The 1st District wraps around parts of Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester, Colleton and Beaufort counties, linking a conservative mix of retirees, suburbanites and military veterans. But the region is changing.

Further complicating the electoral math is this: Cunningham's appeals to Republicans, moderates and independents come at the same time his profile is rising among nationally recognized Democrats.

'Something of a Rorschach test'

Just two days after Cunningham launched the TV ad touting his support from Republicans, former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden endorsed him. The following weekend, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti appeared alongside Cunningham and embraced him at the Charleston County Democratic Party's Blue Jamboree event.

Later that evening, Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey backed Cunningham in a tweet. And on Monday in an email blast to supporters, Cunningham's campaign touted the support of Paul Begala, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton. Georgia congressman John Lewis also chimed in support.

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Republican congressional candidate Katie Arrington turns to former congressman Tommy Hartnett as she expresses gratitude for his work during a 1st Congressional Honorees Banquet at Alhambra Hall in Mount Pleasant on Thursday, August 16, 2018. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Arrington has seized on the opening, slamming Cunningham as a liberal in sheep's clothing.

In a tweet about Booker's endorsement, Arrington wrote, "Extreme DC liberals like Cory won't change our SC conservative values."

Arrington has been calling Cunningham "Pelosi Joe" despite his pledge to vote against Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House if he is elected and Democrats regain control. Arrington is also reminding voters that Cunningham has the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House fundraising arm for Democrats.

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"He's trying to pretend to be something he's not," Arrington campaign spokesman Michael Mulé said. "Joe Cunningham is a liberal, period."

Arrington did not identify herself as Republican in her first TV ad in the general election, but she ran a heavy media campaign during her June primary against incumbent Mark Sanford. Those ads repeatedly reminded voters she was a Republican. Still, more than 32,000 people voted against Arrington in that race, mostly for Sanford. 

Ragusa said the play so far has given Cunningham some wiggle room that Arrington doesn't have because the odds are against him in a historically strong GOP district.

"Candidates running in districts where the fundamentals don't favor them have to be something of a Rorschach test, where voters can see things that they like in the candidate from lots of different perspectives," Ragusa said.

Where are these voters?

Mount Pleasant resident Bert Zidlick says he's one of the so-called moderates. For decades, he identified as a "die-hard Republican" and his voting record supports it. The 72-year-old has voted in the last four Republican primaries but Zidlick said he also splits his ticket regularly. He said he voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election because he found Trump too unpredictable. He's torn. 

That makes him valuable this year.

"The only thing I've got to go on is what I see on TV and what I read in the paper," he said of Arrington and Cunningham. "Most politicians will tell you everything you want to hear, but when things get bad they vote on party lines. I don't want that. I want discussion."

While the Charleston region may be the most blue or purple part of the district and so the most receptive to a Democrat, conservatives still dominate in Berkeley, Dorchester and Beaufort counties. Beaufort County GOP Chairwoman Sherri Zedd does not see voters in Hilton Head turning out for Cunningham.

"He might pick up 30 voters or so, but people here like what the president is doing," Zedd said.

Though Cunningham has not spoken to any Republican groups, his campaign said he would accept a speaking invitation if such a group genuinely wanted to hear from him. 

Arrington's campaign is not concerned, but they aren't going to rest on the district's Republican voting history, either.

"No one takes anything for granted. Any campaign that does is doing their client a disservice," Mulé said.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.