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Why impeachment may not be a reelection vote Joe Cunningham has to worry about

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Election 2020 South Carolina (copy)

U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham addresses the South Carolina Democratic Party's convention on June 22, 2019, in Columbia. In 2018, Cunningham became the first Democrat to flip a South Carolina congressional seat in decades. File/Meg Kinnard/AP

Charleston Democratic congressman Joe Cunningham voted for President Donald Trump's impeachment.

Will it hurt him in November?

Arguably little.

Trump's presidential performance is so unpredictable that, 11 months from now, impeachment — still uncharted in the Senate — could be a distant memory overtaken by a bevy of other headlines and tweets.

Sure, state and national Republicans looking to oust Cunningham will use impeachment as a part of their targeting strategy. But they're already predisposed to focusing on his minority party status in South Carolina while playing up traditional brushstrokes to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  

So will Trump impeachment sway the race come Election Day?

College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts doesn't see it becoming a tipping point: "Your folks living in Mount Pleasant/Daniel Island, are they really going to be angry with Joe Cunningham for voting this way given that they put him in office to be a little bit of a check" on Trump in the first place?  

Cunningham isn't close to holding a safe seat. At least five Republicans are gunning for him in the party's June 9 primary. And conservative groups are dumping tons of cash on negative advertising in the coastal 1st District.

Cunningham, likewise, doesn't want his impeachment vote to be the focus of his 12-month record.

"I wasn't sent up there to impeach the president, but I also wasn't sent up there to protect him either," he said.

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He points to his House bill banning offshore drilling, approval of money for the bike and pedestrian bridge over the Ashley River, and securing funding for the district's military bases as some of his more important local accomplishments.

"These things which will directly impact people's lives here in the district far outweigh any political hot-button issues in my mind," he told Palmetto Politics.

Cunningham's latest internal polling from the fall has him above 50 percent in terms of both favorability and job approval in the district, his camp says.

Republican-generated numbers, however, contend impeachment isn't the path voters want.

A S.C. Republican Party poll by Starboard Communications surveyed 450 1st District voters in December before the formal impeachment vote. Their numbers show 38 percent said they were more likely to support Cunningham if he were to support impeachment, while 57 percent said they were less likely to back him. 

As the GOP poll sees it, the 1st District remains a 10-point plus Republican seat.

In the months ahead, Cunningham's camp knows the biggest obstacle isn't the hardcore Republican partisan who've dominated the district for 40 years; it's in motivating the district's growing crop of suburbanites and moderates to come out.

That includes Never-Trump Republicans and those in the middle who helped secure his 4,000-vote upset win over the Trump-aligned Republican Katie Arrington in 2018.

"This race will be won and lost among those independent voters," said Cunningham's campaign consultant Tyler Jones.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 843-937-5551. Follow him on Twitter at @skropf47.

Political Editor

Schuyler Kropf is The Post and Courier political editor. He has covered every major political race in South Carolina dating to 1988, including for U.S. Senate, governorship, the Statehouse and Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.

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