COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) – South Carolina is sending a new Democrat to Congress for the first time in more than 25 years in a loss for the Republican candidate who had been backed by President Donald Trump.
Attorney and ocean engineer Joe Cunningham beat state Rep. Katie Arrington – a Republican who knocked off an incumbent in the primary thanks to Trump’s backing – in Tuesday’s election.
It was, on the surface, a surprising win in a state that over the past generation has become solidly Republican. But the South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, stretching along the coast from Charleston down to Hilton Head Island, isn’t as conservative as the rest of the state, and Cunningham painted Arrington as a reactionary politician who would back Trump over the people in her district.
“It’s a long time coming,” Cunningham said about his win around 2 a.m. Wednesday after his supporters screamed and cheered in the background of a phone call for 90 seconds. “Today we sent a message. We ran against divisive, hateful rhetoric. We ran a campaign of issues.”
In unofficial results, Cunningham won by about 3,500 votes, which is above the 1 percent threshold that triggers an automatic recount by South Carolina law. The state now has five Republican and two Democratic U.S. House members.
Arrington spoke to reporters Wednesday morning from the same hotel where less than 12 hours earlier she told supporters they were probably just 30 minutes away from a win.
She blamed the lack of support from the incumbent she beat in the June primary, Mark Sanford, who represented the district twice and also served eight years as governor. Sanford did not endorse Arrington and Cunningham spun that in his favor.
“We lost because Mark Sanford could not understand this was about the conservative movement and not him,” Arrington said, telling any true conservatives who donated to Sanford they should ask for their money back.
No issue better illustrated Cunningham’s winning strategy than offshore drilling. Arrington backed Trump’s energy plans that include drilling for oil in the floor of the Atlantic Ocean off the state’s coast during her primary win.
After winning the nomination in June, Arrington said she was against offshore drilling.
Cunningham, 36, went to Republican mayors and other leaders in coastal towns such as the Isle of Palms and got their endorsement by saying he’d fight any drilling off their beaches.
Cunningham also tapped into the well-educated, well-off Republican leaning voters tired of divisive politics. While Arrington’s bare-knuckled approach helped her beat Sanford, her defining this race as a war or good versus evil turned off some voters.
The key to victory for Cunningham was Charleston County, where he won 57 percent of the vote.
Cunningham’s momentum also became evident as the vice president’s wife, Karen Pence and Donald Trump Jr. came to South Carolina to campaign for Arrington and President Trump recorded a message supporting her on a phone call made to thousands of voters.
Just days after winning the Republican primary, Arrington, 47, was seriously injured in a crash as she was being driven to a campaign event. She suffered massive internal bleeding and a broken back and ribs, and needed a ventilator.
Cunningham suspended his campaign while Arrington’s prognosis wasn’t clear.
Arrington’s primary win energized Democrats, desperate to send a first-time congressman to Washington for the first time since 1992, when Jim Clyburn won the 6th District, just redrawn to have a majority of minority voters.
Compared with the rest of the state, South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District is richer – the median income is $66,400, some $17,000 more than the state’s median income – and more purple – the district voted 53.5 percent for Trump in 2016, several points lower than any other Republican-represented district in South Carolina.
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