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Outside group investing to defend Joe Cunningham's SC 1st Congressional District seat

A national political action committee that spent more than half a million dollars to get Democrat Joe Cunningham elected in 2018 may make another six-figure investment in South Carolina's 1st Congressional District race.

In an interview with The Post and Courier, executive director of 314 Action said his group is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure a reelection win for Cunningham in the state's most high-profile congressional race.

"For us, Joe Cunningham is one of our front-line candidates, and we are going to make sure we do everything we can do to defend his seat," said Josh Morrow, executive director of 314 Action. "It's no secret the Republicans are targeting this race as an opportunity for them. They're going to spend heavily to try and beat Joe. We’re going to spend equally as much to ensure Joe gets elected."

The mission of the national group is to elect candidates who have degrees in science, technology, engineering and medicine. Cunningham is a lawyer but previously worked as an ocean engineer in Florida.

Morrow said the organization will start early.

Its first investment is a digital ad that will run on social media this week. The group declined to say how much the ad cost, but Morrow said 314 Action is conservatively looking at spending $20 million on races nationwide this cycle.

In the 30-second spot, the group urges voters to contact two of Cunningham's Republican challengers — Mount Pleasant Town Councilwoman Kathy Landing and state Rep. Nancy Mace, R-Daniel Island —  to get their stance on climate change.

It's a natural pivot point for the group, which sank $523,467 into ads highlighting the issue of offshore drilling in South Carolina's 1st Congressional District in the last election cycle.

"Climate change is hurting the Lowcountry, year after year after year. But there are people who want to represent us in Congress who won't even acknowledge it," the video says.

"Do Nancy Mace and Kathy Landing accept that climate change is real and man-made? Or do they stand with Donald Trump and call it a hoax?" a voiceover asks, as a 2013 tweet from the president appears on-screen.

The congressional district spans much of the South Carolina coastline from Charleston south, including parts of Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester, Colleton and Beaufort counties. The area is prone to strong storms, hurricanes, tidal flooding and sea-level rise.

Morrow said he believes voters who cared about offshore drilling also will care about climate change.

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When reached about the ad, neither campaign provided a clear answer about where their candidates stand on the issue.

Instead, both campaigns separately wrote off the ad as being out of touch with Lowcountry voters and sought to tie Cunningham to more liberal wings of the Democratic Party.

After highlighting Landing's experience in science fields, which includes a bachelor's degree in biology  from Duke University, Landing spokesman Michael Mulé called the ad a "desperate attack."

"Once again, Washington special interests are attempting to mislead the Lowcountry to provide cover for liberal Joe Cunningham’s extreme voting record," Mulé said. "As congresswoman, Kathy Landing will be a strong voice to oppose offshore drilling, promote clean air and water, and fight for our coast. Unlike liberal Joe Cunningham, who stands lock-step with radical Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, conservative Kathy Landing will always put the people she represents first."

Mace said scientific research suggests the Earth's climate has changed over the course of history, but she said she subscribes to "common-sense conservation" efforts, such as supporting solar expansion and allowing municipalities to decide whether to ban single-use plastics.

"I'm glad to see Nancy Pelosi’s allies are worried about me winning back the First Congressional District. Unfortunately for them, their Green New Deal, and any other crazy socialist ideas they have, won’t play down here. Here in the Lowcountry we believe in common-sense conservation, not alarmism and more government overreach," Mace said in a statement.

When Mace ran for U.S. Senate in 2014, she was asked about climate change at the South Carolina Tea Party Convention.

After U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said he wasn't a scientist but believed global warming was real and exacerbated by human activity, Mace remarked, "When we had this recent freeze a few weeks ago I wanted to ask Senator Graham if he still believed in global warming."

Asked about this Monday, Mace said she believes there is more to learn about the earth's climate.

South Carolina's 1st District race is a top priority for Democrats and Republicans alike. 

The National Republican Congressional Committee identified it as one of 55 targeted House districts it wants to flip in 2020, and the S.C. GOP is launching a full-time field operation in Charleston County this summer.

U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said this summer her group is ready make a "major monetary investment" in South Carolina, with an acute focus on defending the coastal district.

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.

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