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Outside money pours in way early in Republican effort to replace SC Rep. Joe Cunningham

Election 2020 Cunningham

FILE - In this Jan. 4, 2019, file photo, Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., walks to a closed Democratic Caucus meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Republican pathway for recapturing House control in next year’s election charges straight through the districts of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents, especially freshmen. Already, an advertising blitz is underway in Cunningham's coastal district, where Advertising Analytics says more than $700,000 has already been spent. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Charleston's freshman Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham doesn't own a TV, but if he did, he might not want to turn it on.

With the 2020 election a distant 11 months away, Cunningham already is a frequent target of political ads, the earliest TV buy in memory.

Most of the ads take aim at him, introducing Cunningham to viewers with ominous voiceovers and using grainy, black-and-white footage of him alongside New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and House Judiciary Chairman Adam Schiff.

Other ads have sought to paint a different picture. Those spots have thanked Cunningham for his work in Congress, particularly for keeping offshore drilling away from the Palmetto State's coastline and for his vote against a budget deal.

Nearly all of the messages can be traced to outside groups that, under campaign finance law, can spend without disclosing their donors and often end up purchasing nonstop ads to promote or pummel political candidates.

Nor do they have to give a complete picture. 

"A political message doesn't have to be creative or innovative to be effective," said Kyle Kondik, a managing editor of political scientist Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, which forecasts political races around the country.

Who is running ads?

The Post and Courier has identified at least seven of those groups that have purchased air time in South Carolina. Five have ties to either Republican interests or pro-Trump efforts in 2020.

The two remaining groups are the political spending arms of a pro-science effort and an environmental preservation nonprofit, both of which laud Cunningham.

According to Advertising Analytics, more than $700,000 has been spent in South Carolina's 1st Congressional District race so far covering TV markets along the coast.

Republicans aren't surprised. The party and conservative groups have made Cunningham and his formerly GOP-held 1st District of 40 years a top priority next year.

"This congressional race — when everything is totaled up and when all is said and done — will probably most expensive congressional race in South Carolina history," S.C. Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick said.

Cunningham squeaked out a victory in 2018, beating by a narrow 1.4-percentage point margin a Republican candidate President Donald Trump had personally and vocally backed. So far, he has drawn five GOP challengers ahead of a filing period that ends in March. 

The ad wars, though, have already started and observers have taken notice.

"This kind of early ad spending is more like something we would expect to see in a Senate race," Kondik said.

An inescapable stream of ads

Voters hoping to tune out the near-constant barrage of political messaging may find the task challenging. 

Beyond the glare of TV ads, outside messaging efforts can be found throughout the coastal 1st District, which includes parts of Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester, Colleton and Beaufort counties.

There are digital ads that pop up while voters scroll through their Facebook feeds. Last month the Republican National Committee paid for full-page newspapers ads in both the Summerville Journal Scene and the Berkeley Independent.

"Wanted," it read in large lettering. "Member of Congress who actually works for South Carolina." 

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The holiday season has done little to temper the intensity or frequency of ads.

America First Policies, a nonprofit group with ties to the Trump administration, announced its plans Tuesday to launch a $2.26 million ad blitz targeting the 27 Democratic House members the group sees as most politically vulnerable in the impeachment fight. Cunningham is on their list.

The group plans to shell out $98,000 — or about 4 percent of the national buy — in Cunningham's district. The effort includes TV and digital ads, as well as text messages. 

The buy comes on top of the roughly $30,000 the group says it spent on its first phase of anti-impeachment advertising in October.

It's all about keeping pressure on Cunningham, especially as to how he votes on Trump's pending impeachment.

"These ads are timed to pick up after the run of American Action Network's ads so there is no lapse in pressure on the Democrats," the group said in an email. "The goal is to make this impeachment vote as difficult as possible for them."

The impeachment factor

The political ads actually started one month before House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi formally ordered the impeachment inquiry.

The first effort was a digital ad campaign from 314 Action, a group working to elect scientists to public office.

Republicans, though, see the ground in conservative South Carolina as advantageous to them. McKissick, of the state GOP chairman,  said impeachment created an opening to chip away at Cunningham on the airwaves by mobilizing their base to shift public opinion.

"It’s an opportunity to define Cunningham as being, in many ways, the opposite of what he pledged to be," the GOP leader said.

"He promised to put Lowcountry over party. Now, Democrats like him are up there wasting a lot of time and a lot money on impeachment," he added. "In a lot of ways Joe Cunningham equals the impeachment inquiry, and he's going to have to be held accountable for that."

One GOP candidate in the race has followed suit.

Mount Pleasant Councilwoman Kathy Landing last week became the first GOP contender in the race to go up with a television ad. It aired during the biggest in-state rivalry matchup of the year: the Clemson-South Carolina football game.

For context, that's about three months earlier than when the first TV ad aired the 2018 1st District race.

Tyler Jones, Cunningham's campaign spokesman, said the ads won't work on Lowcountry voters.

"All the dark money in the world won’t change the fact that people in the Lowcountry know Joe and like Joe, and know that he's looking out for their best interests," Jones said. 

But Kondik, who has been tracking spending in national races, said he wouldn't be so sure in a season where tarnish and TV will go together.

"For Republicans working to win back the majority in the House, this is some of the lowest hanging fruit that they have," he 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.

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