South Carolina

The GOP wants to retake SC congressional seat. But who will take on Joe Cunningham?

Republicans are eager in 2020 to wrest back control of South Carolina’s coastal congressional seat, but a top-tier candidate has yet to emerge.

The absence of one is raising questions about whether the party is having difficulty fielding a contender who can excite donors and mobilize the base, locally and nationally, to take on a popular Democratic incumbent.

The GOP’s answer could be Nancy Mace.

Elected to the State House to represent Berkeley and Charleston counties in a 2018 special election, Mace is being heavily courted to challenge U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, the freshman Democrat who pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the midterms last year.

Last week, Mace traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Mace has spoken with U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Indiana, the NRCC’s recruitment chairwoman, and U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, D-N.Y., who is using her political action committee to promote women running for Congress, sources familiar with recruitment efforts in Washington, D.C., confirmed with The State.

Winning for Women, a nonprofit working to elect Republican women, also has had conversations with Mace, confirmed the group’s spokeswoman, Olivia Perez-Cubas.

“I’m listening,” Mace told The State, “and I’m strongly considering a run for Congress in 2020. I really feel that in that district that folks are looking for somebody who is truly fiscally conservative.

“Joe’s a nice guy,” she said. “He’s just not the right guy.”

Democrats think they have a star in the 1st District who will be tough to beat. In 2018, Cunningham flipped South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District seat, which hadn’t sent a Democrat to Washington since 1981. He beat then-S.C. Rep. Katie Arrington, R-Dorchester, who earlier that year beat then-U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford in the GOP primary.

Democrat Joe Cunningham, center, greets supporters after his victory press conference at the International Longshoremen’s Association hall in Charleston, S.C., Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018. Democratic U.S. House candidate Cunningham used a personal touch and concern for local issues like offshore drilling to beat a Republican in conservative South Carolina. Mic Smith The Associated Press

Since coming to Washington, Cunningham has steered clear of controversy and has built a reputation as a centrist who votes mostly with Democrats but isn’t afraid to break with his party — a quality that could help him appeal to voters across the aisle.

But top operatives at the NRCC say Cunningham’s S.C. seat is among the top five races the GOP should not have lost in last year’s midterms, and the national party is prepared to pour significant resources into reversing the damage.

“The NRCC has met with multiple credible candidates who would all represent the district better than the socialist Democrats’ rubber stamp, Joe Cunningham,” said Camille Gallo, a spokeswoman for the NRCC.

Gallo wouldn’t say who the NRCC has met with so far, but national Republicans are hard at work locating those credible contenders inside South Carolina.

‘A compelling story’

A self-fashioned conservative firebrand, Mace has a resume that would play well on the campaign trail.

She was the first female graduate of the Citadel, the formerly all-male military college. In 2014, she showed off her outsider credentials by launching a long-shot bid against incumbent Lindsey Graham for the GOP nomination in the U.S. Senate, where she won 6 percent of the vote in a seven-way primary.

In 2016, Mace was a South Carolina director of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign — a connection that could help her if she runs for office, given the president’s enduring popularity in the state and willingness to stump for his allies.

But Mace most recently made headlines when she advocated for rape and incest exceptions in a bill that would effectively ban abortions around six weeks. Mace made her case in an impassioned speech about being sexually assaulted as a teenager.

A fellow Republican legislator proceeded to pass out out literature describing rape as a “misdeed of the parent” that doesn’t justify having an abortion. Mace’s colleagues in both parties rushed to her defense, praising the 41-year-old lawmaker for her courage.

Mace did not back down either, complaining to House leadership about the colleague’s behavior and telling The State she wasn’t elected to put up with that kind of treatment.

Others noticed her response, too.

“She’s got a compelling story and an interesting take on the district,” said South Carolina Republican strategist Chip Felkel. “She graciously handled a very difficult situation (during the House abortion debate). That certainly raised her profile, not that that was intentional. She’s a known entity and garnered a lot of respect among Republicans and that might bode well for her if she launches her candidacy.”

A ‘counter voice to the AOCs’

Getting Mace to run for Congress would be a coup for national Republicans, who want to expand the party’s ranks of women in Congress and are taking aggressive steps to do so.

In 2019, Democrats grew the number of women elected to the U.S. House to 91 total, the most in history, up from 67 in the previous Congress. At the same time, the number of Republican women in Congress shrank one legislative session to the next, from 25 to 15. Coming out of the #MeToo era and murmurings about 2018 being “the year of the woman,” the optics for the GOP were less than ideal.

Catherine Templeton, a Mount Pleasant attorney who ran for governor in a five-way Republican primary in 2018, said the GOP would benefit from a woman running in the 1st District — someone who could “have a counter voice to the AOCs and Democratic women in Congress.”

SC Republican gubernatorial candidate Catherine Templeton JASON LEE

She was referring to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., an outspoken Democratic socialist who has become a symbol of the party’s leftward ideological tilt.

Templeton said the NRCC and party activists also reached out to her about running. “Winning for Women” also approached her. But Templeton, who has school-aged children, said she has declined.

Mount Pleasant Town Councilwoman Kathy Landing also is rumored to be mulling a run against Cunningham, but she could not be reached for comment.

At one point, Arrington was indicating an interest in a rematch with Cunningham in 2020. However, she now has a job with the Department of Defense, and sources familiar with recruitment efforts say they have not spoken to her about her intentions.

Asked to respond, Arrington told The State that as a Defense Department employee, she cannot comment and referred a reporter to the federal agency, which could not be reached.

Katie Arrington, Republican candidate for U.S. Congress, spoke during Gov. Henry McMaster’s bus tour around South Carolina. 10/31/18 Tim Dominick

‘People are having conversations’

So far, one Republican has officially declared a bid for the 1st District seat: Mike Covert of Bluffton, a Beaufort County Councilman who as of his last federal campaign finance report had $46,162 in his account, $30,000 of which he personally loaned to his campaign.

Any Republican challenger to Cunningham would need to be a strong fundraiser, as Cunningham was among the top earners among freshmen Democrats in this year’s first fundraising quarter.

South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick isn’t concerned.

“I would expect in the next couple of weeks there will be several names that come up” to challenge Cunningham, McKissick said.

“People are having conversations … Personally, I’ve had conversations with four people” interested in running for the seat.

State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, a libertarian-leaning conservative who has led the charge in the General Assembly to pass a medical marijuana bill, has often had his name floated for higher political office, including this one. Davis told The State he’s mulling a potential candidacy.

Charleston Republican and state Sen. Chip Campsen said he has not ruled out running for the congressional seat, but has not made a firm decision.

A wildcard could be Sanford, who has more than $1.3 million cash on hand, according to federal campaign finance data.

Sanford has surprised the political world before, winning back his old congressional seat in a 2013 special election after his two terms as governor ended in humiliation from the fallout of an extramarital affair. He could do it again, and hasn’t ruled it out — but he also hasn’t given a strong indication now that he’s out of electoral politics for the first time in over two decades.

Sanford could not be reached for comment.

Whoever runs for the 1st District seat, Republicans need a candidate who can strike a balance between representing the priorities of constituents and demonstrating some loyalty to Trump. One of the reasons Sanford lost his primary to Arrington was because he was a vocal Trump critic.

Voters in the district “want a Republican with a seat at the table with the president, and not just blowing your horn in the distance,” Templeton said, a reference to the time Cunningham blew an air horn at a congressional hearing to make a point about the disruptive volume of seismic testing.

Cunningham made his opposition to offshore oil drilling and seismic testing central to his campaign — and made clear he would carry on Sanford’s legacy in this regard — while Arrington was seen as equivocating.

Someone like Mace could present a dangerous combination of Trump loyalty and legislative independence. A supporter of the president whose administration has backed offshore drilling, Mace was also the primary sponsor on a S.C. House resolution expressing opposition to offshore drilling in South Carolina’s waters. She also supports a federal lawsuit filed by coastal S.C. cities and environmental groups to stop seismic testing.

But Mace suggested if she ran for Congress, she’d likely talk about issues she said were less divisive, speaking instead about “fiscal conservative issues, the deficit, the debt, health care — issues that are important to every American.”

Democrats say they aren’t worried — not even about someone like Mace.

“Joe Cunningham is going to be re-elected in 2020, regardless of who Washington Republicans can convince to run against him,” Avery Jaffe, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told The State.

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect that Chris Covert serves on the Beaufort County Council, not Beaufort City Council.

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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.