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S.C. Democrats running for Congress yearn for new party leadership to replace Pelosi

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Cunningham Clyburn

Democratic congressional candidate Joe Cunningham, left, has said that he will not vote for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, right, if elected, one of several South Carolina Democrats yearning for a change in party leadership. Provided/File

COLUMBIA — After House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's more than 15 years in power, most Democratic candidates running for Congress in South Carolina want the party to change leadership.

In interviews Saturday with more than a dozen of the 21 Democrats running for Congress in South Carolina, none would commit to supporting Pelosi if they were elected. But most also said that they would not necessarily oppose the California Democrat, adding that it would depend on who is running against her.

The South Carolina candidate who has taken the most assertive stance against Pelosi is Joe Cunningham, a Charleston attorney running against U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Charleston.

Cunningham, who declared from the outset of his campaign that he would oppose Pelosi for speaker if Democrats win the majority during the midterms, argued that it would be disingenuous for him to run on a platform of removing a career politician and then vote for a Democratic leader who has been in Congress since President Ronald Reagan's administration.

"It's not a knock on Pelosi," Cunningham said. "But all across the board, people we're talking to realize that we need new leadership, and that's what we represent."

In the Columbia district of third-ranking House Democrat Jim Clyburn, Palmetto State Democrats opened their convention weekend Friday night with a speech from Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, who challenged Pelosi for her leadership position after the 2016 election.

Though Ryan fell short in that race, his surprisingly high total of 63 votes signaled growing unrest among rank-and-file Democrats and the need for the party to branch out to more working class voters.

In the months since, Republicans around the country have repeatedly used Pelosi as a cudgel in House races, particularly in historically conservative states like South Carolina.

Ryan, a potential 2020 presidential candidate who has said he does not intend to challenge Pelosi again, preached unity in his speech, arguing Democrats must come together if they hope to take back the House.

But he told The Post and Courier that Democrats should not necessarily shy away from talking about a change in party leadership if they feel it is important.

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"Every candidate's got to make their own decision," Ryan said.

Clyburn said he understands the restlessness of young Democrats. If the party fails to take back the House in November, Clyburn contended that all members of Democratic leadership should step aside.

But he said Democrats must continue to strike a balance between youthful energy and the wisdom that comes with experience.

"No matter how strong you are, if you don't know what to do with your strength, then you're going to waste your time," Clyburn said. "And I don't care how wise you are, if you don't have the strength to get it done, you're going to fail. So there must be, in my opinion, a healthy mix."

Annabelle Robertson, who is running against Sean Carrigan in the Democratic primary to challenge U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-Springdale, said Democrats should not dismiss Pelosi's contributions to the party.

"Nancy Pelosi has made historic strides for women and that is important to remember," Robertson said, though she would not unequivocally commit to voting for her.

Still, for Democrats running in traditionally red districts around the state, many acknowledged that the national Democratic brand tied to Pelosi can make it more difficult for the minority party to pull off upsets because she repels even moderate Republicans, who could become swing voters.

Archie Parnell, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman in a rematch of last year's surprisingly close special election, pointed to Pelosi's comment about how the the GOP tax cuts would amount to "crumbs" for many Americans as an example of a damaging moment for red-state Democratic candidates.

"I like Nancy Pelosi a lot," said Eric Graben, a former Greenville County Democratic Party chairman who is one of five Democrats running to replace U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy in the conservative Upstate.

"But practically everybody on the other side of the aisle really dislikes her," he added, "and we might be better off if we had new leadership in both parties and didn't have leaders who have such a history of acrimony against each other."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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