COLUMBIA — A seismic shakeup in the South Carolina political landscape reverberated nationwide Tuesday night.
While the Lowcountry's 1st Congressional District race garnered attention for months as a potentially competitive contest, Democrat Joe Cunningham's victory over Republican Katie Arrington still stunned many political experts.
Dave Wasserman, the top U.S. House editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, sized up the result in a district Trump won easily in 2016 as the second biggest Democratic upset of the night nationwide.
The win immediately prompted strategists to highlight broader takeaways for other Democrat candidates in historically conservative districts.
First and foremost, many Democrats said the clearest lesson dates back to the age-old adage from the late longtime U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neill: All politics is local. A positive, aspirational message also helped distinguish Cunningham in a divisive time when pollsters found moderate voters appreciated unity.
"He didn't allow his opponent to drag him into a national narrative but really stayed laser-focused on local issues," S.C. Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright said.
In a three-word campaign slogan, Cunningham sought to encapsulate his approach: "Lowcountry over party."
Most notably, Cunningham emphasized Arrington's comments during the primary indicating support for Trump ending the ban on offshore drilling — an unpopular position in the coastal community that Arrington struggled to distance herself from during the general election race. He also expressed an openness to working with Trump on issues like infrastructure.
To Jaime Harrison, a top official at the Democratic National Committee and the former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman, Cunningham's campaign proved that pundits who said the minority party had no unified national message were looking at the races in the wrong way.
"I always said, the Democratic message is the 435 messages you need to have in the 435 districts you're running in," Harrison said. "There doesn't need to be one primary message, particularly in a midterm when you're not all focused on one presidential candidate. How would a message from San Francisco work in Charleston, South Carolina? It doesn't."
Overall, the midterm election results offered a muddy picture, leading experts to caution against overarching narratives or conflating districts and states that each have their own unique dynamics.
Both parties highlighted races in which they outperformed expectations. While Democrats took back the House majority, Republicans expanded their margin in the Senate and fended off strong challengers in key states like Florida and Texas.
Even in South Carolina alone, the locally-focused strategy offered a mixed bag for Democrats. Cunningham's win stood in contrast to state Rep. James Smith, the party's nominee for governor, who also consistently eschewed national wedge issues only to fall far short of Republican incumbent Gov. Henry McMaster.
Many observers argued a key distinction between the gubernatorial and congressional races were the campaigns run by their opponents, which former Gov. Nikki Haley's ex-spokesman Rob Godfrey said "could not have been more different."
"Gov. McMaster was a steady hand at the wheel, a well-known commodity who understood the issues that drove the people of the state," Godfrey said. "(Arrington) was an erratic candidate from the start, and as an unknown candidate, she became defined by that."
After emerging from the GOP primary on a pro-Trump message, McMaster sought to broaden his appeal in the general election and highlight a positive message of state-level successes. Arrington, by contrast, doubled down on more polarizing issues like the migrant caravan and the Supreme Court confirmation process of Brett Kavanaugh.
"Joe kept it local whereas Katie thought she could default to the whole 'Pelosi Joe' thing and embrace Trump," said Democratic former state Rep. Boyd Brown, who helped Cunningham raise money. "People saw right through that. Joe spoke to their hearts and minds where she was trying to speak to their fears, and people just didn't buy it."
Another difference-maker, strategists said, was Cunningham's fundraising discipline, building a small-dollar grassroots donor network early on to make up for his public rejection of big contributions from special interest political action committees while still maintaining a heavy campaign schedule.
That fundraising advantage allowed him to massively outspend Arrington on TV and other key campaign outreach efforts.
"What Joe did really well is he sat down and made the calls, hours and hours of calls every day, but he also didn't disappear," Charleston County Democratic Chairman Brady Quirk-Garvan said. "Sometimes candidates go into a room and don't get out there. Joe was doing public events four to five days a week and that made voters feel like he was accessible."
By going on a district-wide brewery tour, Cunningham took the oft-cited goal of becoming a candidate voters feel like they can have a beer with to a literal level while simultaneously championing a growing industry in the area.
While the race attracted some national attention and Cunningham landed a prized spot on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's "Red-to-Blue" target list, some Democrats argued that the fact that his candidacy didn't achieve the viral status of some campaigns in states like Georgia and Texas helped to keep the focus in-district.
"The hard part is that there is this real temptation that if you nationalize things, there's all this national money that can come in," Quirk-Garvan said. "But I think what Joe showed is that may not be worth the trade-off, and keeping it local both in how you campaign and who you're targeting donor-wise makes a big difference."