South Carolina

Here’s who GOP voters thinks can unseat Joe Cunningham in SC’s 1st District in 2020

Joe Cunningham the day after defeating Katie Arrington for SC Congress seat

Congressman-elect Joe Cunningham holds a press conference after a call by his opponent Katie Arrington, conceding the race.
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Congressman-elect Joe Cunningham holds a press conference after a call by his opponent Katie Arrington, conceding the race.

A new poll of Republicans in South Carolina’s 1st District suggests GOP primary voters would like to see some familiar faces in next year’s race for Congress.

But the poll also suggests there is an opening for a new Republican candidate to emerge in 2020.

The Atlanta-based firm Trafalgar Group surveyed more than 2,000 likely GOP primary voters, asking their preferred candidate to retake the 1st District congressional seat that Democrat Joe Cunningham won in November. Cunningham was the first Democrat to win the congressional seat in the Charleston-area district in four decades.

Former state Rep. Katie Arrington of Summerville, who lost the November election to Cunningham, was the top choice of 25.5 percent of likely GOP primary voters. She was followed by former U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, the incumbent who Arrington defeated in last June’s GOP primary, at 23.2 percent. Another 22.2 percent were undecided.

“The fact that both candidates who are known by everybody aren’t breaking 30 percent is significant,” said pollster Robert Cahaly. “That suggests an opening is there for somebody else.”

If Sanford is excluded as a possible GOP candidate, Arrington receives the support of 30.8 percent of likely GOP primary voters, while 31.7 percent say they are undecided.

If Arrington is excluded, 36.8 percent say they support Sanford, while 22.4 percent are undecided.

With Arrington and Sanford both in the race, roughly a quarter of likely GOP primary voters say they would be looking at other options.

Two state senators from the Lowcountry — former Sanford aide Tom Davis of Beaufort and Larry Grooms of Charleston — were favored by 7.4 and 5.8 percent of those surveyed, respectively.

State Rep. Nancy Mace, R-Charleston, has the support of 4.7 percent of those polled. Mace is best known as the first woman to graduate from The Citadel. She won a S.C. House seat last year.

“Mace and Grooms pull from the same geographic area, so if only one of them ran, I can see their support growing,” Cahaly said.

Davis, meanwhile, leads Sanford in Beaufort County by 22.5 percent to 14.8 percent, and narrowly trailed Arrington — at 23.7 percent — in that Lowcountry county.

Also receiving support were: former GOP candidate for governor Catherine Templeton of Mount Pleasant, 3.1 percent; state Rep. Weston Newton of Beaufort, 3 percent; state Rep. Peter McCoy of Charleston, 1.7 percent; Charleston County Councilman Elliott Summey, 1.2 percent; Beaufort County Treasurer Maria Walls, 1.2 percent; and Teddy Turner, a former 1st District candidate and son of media mogul Ted Turner, 1.1 percent.

The Trafalgar Group surveyed 2,479 respondents in Beaufort, Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton and Dorchester counties between Jan. 28 and Feb. 1. The poll had a 95 percent response rate and a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

The results are similar to a poll conducted just days after November’s midterm election. That poll showed Arrington and Sanford — the two former Republican 1st District nominees — leading the field in a potential GOP primary.

The survey by Florida-based Political Marketing International and South Carolina-based Ivory Tusk Consulting showed nearly one in three likely GOP primary voters said they would support Arrington. Another 26 percent backed Sanford.

This story was updated to note the November survey was conducted by both Political Marketing International and Ivory Tusk Consulting.
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Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.
Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.
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