COLUMBIA — U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, one of only two Democratic congressmen from South Carolina, forcefully rebuked U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders on Wednesday, jolting the state's "First in the South" presidential primary race just hours after the Vermont senator won in New Hampshire.
In a statement to The Post and Courier, the first-term congressman from Charleston said he does not plan on making an endorsement ahead of South Carolina's Feb. 29 primary but will "defend our Lowcountry values of opportunity, pragmatism and common sense.”
“South Carolinians don’t want socialism," Cunningham said. "We want to know how you are going to get things done and how you are going to pay for them. Bernie’s proposals to raise taxes on almost everyone is not something the Lowcountry wants and not something I’d ever support."
Asked if he would support Sanders if he becomes the Democratic presidential nominee, Cunningham rejected the question's premise.
"Bernie Sanders will not be the nominee," he said.
Sanders' campaign declined to respond.
Cunningham's statement represents the first time he has substantially waded into the presidential contest and comes just as national attention is turning towards his home state of South Carolina.
Sanders has soared into front-runner status after strong performances in the first two nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire and is looking to build on that momentum in the Nevada caucuses and South Carolina primary.
Other candidates have long warned that they believe Sanders would have a damaging effect on down-ballot races if he is the Democratic nominee at the top of the ticket in November.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who remains the front-runner in South Carolina, has most explicitly made that case, arguing Sanders would hurt vulnerable Democrats in competitive districts like Cunningham as they try to win reelection.
In 2018, Cunningham flipped a seat that had been held by Republicans for four decades in large part by casting himself as a moderate Democrat who would look out for the district over partisan politics.
Several other moderate House Democrats in similar positions to Cunningham are reportedly increasingly anxious about the possibility of Sanders becoming the nominee, fearing it would imperil their chances of maintaining the House majority.
South Carolina Republicans did not cede any credit to Cunningham for criticizing Sanders, arguing the Democratic Party is already "the party of socialism."
"Joe Cunningham has a right to be nervous that Bernie Sanders' radical socialist agenda will drag his party down in defeat," said S.C. GOP spokesman Joe Jackson. "But it is laughable that he would actually stand up for 'Lowcountry values' — that was made clear the day he decided to put party over country and voted to impeach President Trump."
South Carolina's other Democratic congressman, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of Columbia, has also not endorsed in the race yet and has made clear that, if he does weigh in, it will not be until after the South Carolina primary debate on Feb. 25.
Clyburn has spoken fondly of Biden, with whom he shares the closest relationship among the Democratic primary field, and he has said from the outset of the race that he views Biden as the frontrunner in the state.
Biden supporters have described South Carolina as a "must-win" for his campaign, especially after his significant setbacks in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The former vice president has faced increasing competition from Sanders and businessman Tom Steyer, both of whom have invested substantial resources in South Carolina as they seek to chip away at Biden's lead among black voters, who comprise roughly two-thirds of the state's Democratic electorate.