WILLISTON — A young Democratic attorney with no political experience launches a long-shot bid for Congress against a well-known Republican incumbent in a district President Donald Trump won comfortably.

The candidate eschews high-dollar corporate donations while still managing to rake in eye-catching sums of campaign cash, vows to put the needs of the district over political partisanship and generates new levels of Democratic enthusiasm in a longtime GOP stronghold that nobody ever expected to be competitive.

Two years ago, that was the origin story of Joe Cunningham, now the Lowcountry's congressman. This election cycle, Democrats are pointing to another new contender in South Carolina with a similar profile who they hope can score an even more unlikely upset victory: Adair Ford Boroughs.

For all the challenges Cunningham overcame, the hill Boroughs will have to climb is even steeper.

Cunningham never ended up having to face the opponent he initially expected after Katie Arrington defeated then-U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford in the GOP primary. This time, Boroughs would be all but certain to face 17-year incumbent U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-Springdale.

Republicans had held the Lowcountry's 1st Congressional District since 1981. They have held the 2nd Congressional District, which stretches from parts of Columbia out through conservative Lexington County, Aiken and Barnwell, since 1965. And South Carolina has not sent any women to Congress since 1989.

Cunningham ran during a blue wave midterm election year. Boroughs is running in a presidential cycle, when her fate could be tied to the nominees at the top of the ballot.

Trump won Sanford's district by 13 percent. He won Wilson's by 18. 

Nevertheless, Boroughs took note of Cunningham's playbook and has already begun putting it to use.

She burst out of the gate with an attention-grabbing first fundraising quarter. She's emphasizing her personal biography and making similar commitments to work across the aisle. She's even hired some of the Democratic operatives who aided Cunningham's winning campaign.

But perhaps Cunningham's biggest impact on Boroughs' race may be psychological: Once a miracle happens, it becomes that much easier to convince voters, activists, donors and party officials — all the types of people who play crucial roles in successful campaigns — that maybe, just maybe, it could happen again a few dozen miles away.

'Big dreams come from small places'

While a couple hundred supporters snacked on some of Boroughs' dad's homemade chili and swatted away bugs Sunday evening, Boroughs laid out the case for another miracle on the high school football field of her alma mater in the small Barnwell County town of Williston.

If the daughter of a cabinet maker and public school teacher from Williston could rise to win a full scholarship to Furman University, get into Stanford Law School, go on to work at the U.S. Department of Justice, clerk for a federal judge and lead a nonprofit law firm, then why couldn't she flip a congressional seat, the argument went.

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"I know we can do better and I know we deserve better, that's why I'm running for congress." Adair Ford Boroughs said during her campaign kickoff running against U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-Springdale at Williston-Elko High School on Sunday, July 28, 2019 in Williston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

"I think people are ready for something different here," Boroughs, 39, told reporters after the campaign kickoff. "I do my homework before I take on any task, and I did here, and we can win it. We’ve seen trends in the district trending away from Wilson’s politics."

She has gone after Wilson early, slamming him as little more than a ceremonial office-holder who only passed one bill — to rename a post office — in his 17 years in Congress.

"I’ve had lots of conversations and people are ready for somebody who’s actually going to work, from both parties," Boroughs said. "They're tired of dynasty politics and people being in office for decades on end and not really getting anything done. So, I think I'm an option that will be refreshing to a number of people."

State Rep. Lonnie Hosey, D-Barnwell, compared the race to David vs. Goliath. Williston native Steven Brown, the founder of an engineering summer program, offered a refrain that got repeated several times throughout the evening: "Big dreams come from small places."

As Cunningham did, Boroughs will first have to overcome at least one progressive primary opponent: Lawrence Nathaniel, a 26-year-old former Bernie Sanders organizer. Both candidates are introducing themselves to most voters for the first time.

Wilson, 71, has not been particularly tested in recent races. Iraq War veteran Rob Miller came within 8 percent of Wilson in 2008, but lost by a wider margin in an expensive 2010 rematch after the congressman's famous "You lie" shout at President Barack Obama. 

Asked about his opponents shortly after they launched their campaigns, Wilson said he'll compete vigorously to retain his seat.

"I look forward to a campaign and I really enjoy the people I represent," Wilson told The Post and Courier. "It’s up to me to be prepared, and we’ll be prepared."

'Supreme underdogs'

Most Republicans react to the notion of a competitive race in Wilson's district with laughter.

S.C. GOP chairman Drew McKissick said that given Wilson's "record of delivering for the people of this district, along with having President Trump and Senator Graham on the ballot, we welcome the Democrats wasting their time and setting their money on fire."

Former S.C. GOP chairman Matt Moore, a resident of Wilson's district, noted there's no clear bipartisan issue for Boroughs to latch onto the way Cunningham did with offshore drilling.

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U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson speaks at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, in Eastover for a press conference with U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in 2017. File / John A. Carlos II / Special to The Post and Courier

"The truth is that the 2nd district has a built-in competitive advantage for Republicans in the way that the lines are drawn," Moore said. "Incumbents usually lose when their base abandons them, and thus far nobody is abandoning Joe Wilson."

Still, some Republicans who have studied the district closely warn it may be closer than some realize and say Wilson will need to pick up his fundraising efforts.

A GOP internal poll conducted a couple months before the 2018 election, obtained by The Post and Courier, found that Republicans actually only had an 8 percent head start in the district, with an additional 17 percent indicating they could be persuaded either way. Strategists cautioned at the time that a compelling, well-funded Democrat could feasibly narrow the gap.

The top two issues voters identified in that poll were lowering health care costs and getting federal spending under control — both of which have become early planks of Boroughs' platform.

While Boroughs describes herself as progressive on some social issues like LGBTQ rights, she identifies as more conservative on fiscal issues.

For example, she said she would have voted against the recent budget deal in Congress, which significantly raised government spending. Unlike most Democrats, Cunningham voted against the agreement, citing concerns about the national debt. Wilson was the only Republican in South Carolina's U.S. House delegation to vote for it.

For the first time since 2010, when Mick Mulvaney took down John Spratt, Democrats are defending a congressional seat in South Carolina, limiting the amount of resources they will have to go on offense in other districts.

But after out-raising Wilson more than 2-to-1 in her first fundraising quarter, Boroughs has already caught some early attention from top national Democrats, who can provide valuable assistance directing donors to emerging candidates.

The lack of Republican concern about Boroughs' fundraising figures stems from a belief that, like many first-time candidates, she picked off the lowest-hanging fruit first — friends, family and prolific Democratic donors — and won't be able to sustain it. She insisted Sunday that she will prove those doubts wrong.

She hired the same ad maker, AJ Lenar of GMMB, who won awards for his work on Cunningham's campaign, and her finance director, Michael Carter, was deputy finance director for Cunningham.

Initially reluctant to take on such a difficult race, Lenar said he eventually came to see a convincing case to oust Wilson and some of the same qualities in Boroughs that made Cunningham's candidacy a compelling narrative for TV and digital campaigning.

"They both start their races as supreme underdogs," Lenar said. "But I thought she would be a really good candidate and was doing it for the right reasons, and even in a super Republican district, I think she has a shot."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.

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