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With Cunningham's impeachment vote, SC congressional race intensifies

Election 2020 Courting Freshmen (copy)

U.S. Rep. Cunningham, D-Charleston, said he plans to vote in favor impeaching President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

WASHINGTON — If the Lowcountry's 2020 congressional race wasn't intense enough already, impeachment has thrown a bucket of fuel on the fire.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham's decision to support impeaching President Donald Trump for alleged abuse of power and obstruction of Congress drew howls from Republicans, cheers from Democrats and immediate speculation about what impact the move would have for the first-term Charleston congressman's political future.

The decisive question will be whether Cunningham's vote merely served to intensify opposition from constituents who would have voted against him regardless and support from those who would have voted for him, or whether it will actually move more moderate voters in South Carolina's 1st Congressional District one way or the other.

Both the S.C. GOP and the National Republican Congressional Committee framed the vote Cunningham will cast Wednesday as the death knell for his political career. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and even the White House weighed in directly on Cunningham's decision.

"While President Trump continues to work tirelessly for South Carolinians by supporting our troops and truly draining the swamp, Joe Cunningham is now in lockstep with progressive Democrats who are solely focused on impeaching him,” said White House deputy press secretary Steven Groves.

Cunningham's counter to those claims has been to call attention to all the other issues he's worked on in his first year in office, from improving services for veterans to securing funding for infrastructure improvements in his district.

In a Post and Courier op-ed explaining his decision, Cunningham only briefly touched on impeachment before spending most of the space detailing his other legislative priorities. On the claim that impeachment has been his sole focus, Cunningham wrote, "Nothing could be further from the truth."

A few days before Cunningham's announcement, a Democratic outside group called House Majority Forward bought more than $100,000 worth of television air time in the 1st District to air an ad supporting him.

The ad makes no mention of impeachment, instead focusing on his support for a bill that seeks to lower prescription drug costs.

Not all Republicans buy the party's lines of attack.

Rob Godfrey, a former top aide for ex-Gov. Nikki Haley and other Republican officials, said the criticism would be warranted if Cunningham had "rushed to judgment" like other members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.

"Instead what he's done is acted with restraint, waited to understand the facts, waited for evidence to be presented, and then once all that was done he looked at the totality of the case and made the decision that he thinks is in the best interest of the country and his constituents," Godfrey said. "You can't really ask for more from a member of Congress."

Godfrey argued that voters will ultimately be more concerned with policy concerns that impact them, as they did with offshore drilling in the 2018 race, and said Cunningham "has led on those issues."

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Wesley Donehue, a GOP digital consultant advising one of Cunningham's potential Republican opponents — state Rep. Nancy Mace of Daniel Island, said Republicans will be able to make the case that impeachment would have derailed a strong economy under Trump, thereby impacting their daily lives.

"The people in the middle like Joe because he's just a likable guy, but they're not going to put up with him voting in a manner that personally hurts them," Donehue said. "In this case, the impeachment of Donald Trump hurts the pockets of middle-class Americans."

Donehue also predicted the vote could serve as a fundraising boon for Cunningham's still-to-be-decided Republican challenger, which will be helpful when Republicans work to catch up to Cunningham's financial head start after their primary.

Mace, for example, sent out a fundraising email Tuesday calling Cunningham "Impeachment Joe," and other GOP primary contenders, including Mount Pleasant Councilwoman Kathy Landing and Beaufort County Councilman Mike Covert, also publicly condemned the decision.

Given that the Senate is likely to dispose of the impeachment process fairly quickly in 2020, many months before the election, College of Charleston political scientist Jordan Ragusa said it's too early to tell whether it will have a lasting effect on the race.

"Is it possible that impeachment kind of peters off and voters are focused on more substantive issues? Yes, it's possible," Ragusa said. "Is it possible that impeachment ends up being the defining issue of 2020? Yes, that's also possible. I think anyone that says they know how this is going to play out really doesn't have a clue."

Wednesday's vote is expected to fall almost entirely along party lines. No House Republicans have expressed support for impeachment other than U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, who left the party a few months ago to become an independent.

In an effort to add at least some veneer of bipartisanship to the proceedings, Cunningham has been one of several frehsman Democrats encouraging House leaders to consider Amash as an impeachment manager.

"Justin's a good guy and I applaud him for standing up for what was right and going against his own party," Cunningham said. "That's something I can sympathize with as much as I've done it before. I'm definitely open to it. I think the more bipartisan this can be the better."

Democrats wound up with far fewer defections than initially anticipated.

Other freshman Democrats in a similar political situation to Cunningham — those who hail from districts Trump won in 2016 — almost all came out over the past few days in support of the impeachment, often deploying similar language about the solemnity of the moment and their oath to defend the Constitution.

A notable exception was U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a moderate New Jersey Democrat whose opposition to impeachment grew so intense that he is expected to switch parties in the coming days.

But, in characteristic fashion, Cunningham declined to criticize Van Drew for the move even as other Democrats lambasted him for it.

"Jeff's a good friend of mine as a Democrat, and Jeff's going to be a good friend of mine as a Republican, too," Cunningham said. 

Whether that type of conciliatory approach can still break through the noise in an era of polarization will be put to the test in November.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.

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