Joe Cunningham

Democrat Joe Cunningham is challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., in 2018. Provided

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford has never lost an election, but a 35-year-old construction law attorney and yoga studio owner is about to try to break the streak.

Joe Cunningham on Wednesday morning formally launched his bid to unseat the 1st District Republican incumbent in 2018, citing a broken Washington in need of fixing in the era of Donald Trump.

"We can't keep sending the same politicians who have been there, decade after decade, to fix the problems they created in the first place," Cunningham told The Post and Courier.

"It’s a different political time, and I’m a different candidate," he continued. "I think it’s beginning to come into focus what the Trump presidency represents and how it’s shaping up with people like Mark Sanford in Congress. And it’s not good."

Though the 1st Congressional District had a lower turnout for Trump than in other parts of the state, framing Sanford as in sync with Trump might be a hard sell. Sanford arguably more than any one other Republican in the South Carolina delegation has broken with the president most frequently and criticized him openly.

Sanford's willingness to call Trump out on such matters as his uncivil tone on the campaign trail and failure to release his tax returns could make him more vulnerable in a Republican primary, where challengers could run on pro-Trump credentials.

Tommy Perez and Ted Fienning — two early primary challengers who dropped out within a week of each other citing deployment orders and family obligations, respectively — had such platforms.

State Rep. Katie Arrington, R-Summerville, who is currently being courted by local conservatives to run against Sanford, is also staking out a niche as a Trump ally.

Sanford, who lives in Mount Pleasant, told The Post and Courier he "look(ed) forward to the debate ahead."

Cunningham said Sanford is undeniably "complicit" in the Trump agenda.

"Talk is cheap," Cunningham said. "He might go out and say something, but you look at his record, he votes with (Trump) 90 percent of the time. When (Trump) was looking for additional votes for health care, it’s Sanford who he went to, and Sanford who answered the call."

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Cunningham also is looking to frame himself as someone independent of his party in Washington. On Wednesday morning, he tweeted that he would not vote for U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to be House Democratic Leader.

Cunningham's announcement coincided with the morning after two bruising special elections for Democrats. In Georgia, Republican Karen Handel defeated Democrat Jon Ossoff; in South Carolina's 5th Congressional District, Republican Ralph Norman beat Democrat Archie Parnell. 

A Kentucky native, Cunningham first came to the 1st District in 2000 to enroll as an undergraduate at the College of Charleston, but he ultimately transferred to Florida Atlantic University in 2002 to pursue a degree in engineering.

After time as an ocean engineer in Naples, Fla., and a stint learning Spanish in South America, he earned a law degree at Northern Kentucky University.

He returned to Charleston in early 2014 to practice construction law. Along with his wife, he also co-owns Soul Yoga + Wellness in West Ashley. 

Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier's Washington correspondent. Reach her at 843-834-0419 and follow her @emma_dumain.