Kate Arrington

South Carolina 1st Congressional District Republican candidate Kate Arrington conceded the race to Democrat and winner Joe Cunningham Wednesday morning, Nov. 7, 2018. Brad Nettles/Staff

Eight hours after Republican Katie Arrington lost her South Carolina congressional race, she blamed her shocking defeat on U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, the outgoing Republican congressman she bested in the primary.

At a Wednesday morning press conference, Arrington addressed the media for the first time since her late-hour loss.

After thanking her husband, God and her supporters, Arrington took aim at Sanford.

"We lost because Mark Sanford could not understand that this race was about the conservative movement — and not about him," Arrington said, standing at the podium in the very room where she had initially planned to give her victory speech.

Democrat Joe Cunningham, a 36-year-old construction attorney, beat Arrington, a 47-year-old state lawmaker, in a tight contest Tuesday. 

Unofficial results gave Cunningham 50.62 percent of the vote to Arrington’s 49.21 percent, with all precincts reporting.

It came down to a 4,036 vote difference, with the race not being called until 2 a.m. Wednesday. 

Arrington in the press conference said she called Cunningham and conceded to him Wednesday morning.

But to Arrington, her loss came down to Sanford, his silence during the general election and his supporters. He'd chosen not to endorse her as a fellow Republican. 

"Mark Sanford," she said, winding up, "To all of your donors, I ask them this morning to request their donations back, if they are truly conservatives, to your wonderful chest that you’ve kept so proud and so long."

Arrington handed Sanford his first-ever loss when she beat him in the June GOP primary. 

During that contest, she made her loyalty to President Donald Trump — and Sanford's vocal criticism of him — the centerpiece of her campaign.

Sanford, who is known for being frugal, spent little in that contest. When the race had wrapped, Sanford still had $1.5 million sitting in his campaign account.

Sanford was also one of only two GOP House incumbents to lose their Republican primaries this election cycle. But following Arrington's win, Sanford stayed on the sidelines and did not endorse his party's victor. 

When other members of the South Carolina delegation endorsed Arrington's bid, including U.S. Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham, Sanford was nowhere to be found.

He stayed silent, declining to endorse Arrington or Cunningham.

In the week before the election, Sanford told The Post and Courier of his reluctance to endorse in the race for Charleston's seat in Congress.

"Part of leadership, at times, means knowing when it’s best to keep quiet," Sanford said ahead of the midterm election.

Arrington, who has always wanted to be in Congress, said her loss is not the end of her time in politics.

"I'm not going anywhere. This is just a break in time," she said, adding, "2020 is just a few years away."

Arrington did not take questions. 

Reached Wednesday evening, Sanford said it's natural in life to want to blame someone or something else for a loss. But he also said he believes endorsements do not determine electoral outcomes. 

"Voters look to local candidates to determine as best they can which one best represents their hopes, their fears and ideas they believe in," Sanford said.

"I've long believed elections are decided by 'We the people.'"

Sanford also noted that he rarely endorses in elections, but he did point to other big-names in the Republican Party who had backed Arrington in her congressional bid, including Trump.

"Some will blame me, but look at this objectively," he said, citing other factors like the trending blue of the district and the degree to which Cunningham was seen as an advocate for environmental and coastal issues.

Former Sanford Chief of Staff Scott English was quoted by the Associated Press as saying Sanford could position himself for a comeback for the seat, as a Republican who can save the party from Trump.

While Arrington may be blaming Sanford, on paper the trend against her was led by voters in Charleston County, especially James Island, Johns Island and parts of West Ashley.

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So many people voted Democratic in these areas it contributed to diluting the surrounding Republican-dominated counties in a congressional district that normally votes heavily Republican.

Case in point: In James Island Precinct 1B, which is on the way to Folly Beach and includes a portion of Grimball Road, Cunningham clobbered Arrington by a 329-58 margin.

What else is clear: Cunningham's campaign says the candidates' dueling stances on offshore oil and gas exploration worked to weaken GOP strength on the barrier islands and other areas dependent on tourism dollars.

Cunningham had tried to trip up Arrington with a profoundly local issue — the opening of permits for offshore oil drilling in the Atlantic. Potentially allowing oil and gas exploration is a Trump administration policy that united coastal voters of both parties in opposition, and Arrington initially said she supported the president’s plan to open leasing in federal waters.

Arrington's murky initial position also cost her public support from three coastal mayors who identify as Republicans, including Folly Beach Mayor Tim Goodwin and Isle of Palms Mayor Jimmy Carroll.

These well-to-do communities normally vote heavily red in November, but there were just enough blue-motivated voters there to keep the race tight, said Cunningham spokesman Tyler Jones.

The Isle of Palms for instance, still went for Republican Arrington on Tuesday but Cunningham did better than Hillary Clinton did there in 2016, he said.

"Turning that blue would have been impossible," Jones said.

Folly Beach, meanwhile, flipped and went blue this time after supporting Donald Trump two years ago.

Goodwin, the Folly Beach mayor, appeared in multiple TV ads for Cunningham during the general election, in which he openly stated on-air, "I voted for Mark Sanford, but this time around I'm voting for Joe Cunningham."

At 9:42 a.m. Wednesday, 18 minutes before Arrington's press conference, Sanford tweeted his congratulations.

"Congrats to Congressman-elect @JoeCunninghamSC. My team and I will be running hard to the finish line to ensure smooth transition…" Sanford wrote.

He did not mention Arrington.

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.