Voter turnout and hot-button issues such as abortion could determine whether Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joe Cunningham can beat incumbent Republican Gov. Henry McMaster in South Carolina's Nov. 8 election, analysts say.
Jim Hodges of Lancaster was the last Democrat to win the governor's office when he defeated incumbent Republican Gov. David Beasley in 1998.
Cunningham's lieutenant governor running mate is Tally Parham Casey, CEO of the Wyche, P.A., law firm in Greenville and a former F-16 pilot with the South Carolina Air National Guard’s 157th Fighter Squadron.
McMaster and Lt. Gov. Pam Evette are seeking a second full term. Evette founded Quality Business Solutions, Inc. (QBS), a payroll, human resources, and benefits services firm headquartered in Travelers Rest.
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Cunningham represented the 1st District of South Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2019-21. His win over Republican Katie Arrington in 2018 was the first time in nearly 40 years a Democrat won in that district. In 2020, he lost his re-election bid to Republican Nancy Mace by fewer than 6,000 votes.
This year, the Charleston Democrat is challenging one of South Carolina's longest-serving Republican leaders in McMaster, a former legislative aide to U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond. McMaster was appointed U.S. attorney in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan, served nine years as state GOP chairman, two terms as state attorney general and was elected lieutenant governor in 2014.
McMaster, a Trump supporter, was sworn in as governor in 2017 when former Gov. Nikki Haley resigned to join the Trump administration as ambassador to the United Nations.
Odds against Democrats
In a red state like South Carolina, the odds are stacked against Cunningham and any Democrat for that matter in a statewide or national election, political analysts say. Longtime 6th District Congressman Jim Clyburn is the only Democrat in South Carolina's seven-member congressional delegation.
Republicans hold a 2-1 advantage in both the state House and Senate. In the 2020 general election, Republican Donald Trump beat Democrat Joe Biden by more than 10 points statewide, as did Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham over Democrat Jaime Harrison.
In 2018, McMaster defeated Democratic gubernatorial nominee James Smith by a margin of 54% to 46%.
Retired Clemson University political science professor David Woodard has been a political consultant for numerous Republicans, including former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Graham.
"From my experience as a pollster over many elections, I'd say that the partisan division in South Carolina is about 53% to 55% Republican depending on the race, and the Democrats are about 47% to 45% on most races," Woodard said. "Getting over 50% requires scandal or some new issue that divides the electorate. That isn't happening this year."
Sometimes it can be a hot issue that brings voters out. In 1998, Hodges capitalized on his proposal to create a state education lottery and TV ads that depicted a red-bearded Bubba wearing a Georgia Bulldogs T-shirt behind a convenience store counter stating how Georgia benefited from its lottery.
"Thank goodness your Governor, David Beasley, won't let y'all have a lottery," a grinning Bubba said in the ad.
For Cunningham, abortion could be the issue that brings out Democratic voters who are upset with the Supreme Court's ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade and state efforts to ban abortion outright.
"Governor McMaster wants to ban all abortions with no exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother," Cunningham told roughly 150 people who attended his downtown Spartanburg campaign rally at the Citizens & Southern Event Center. "The fact is, 90% of you agree there should be some exceptions to the abortion ban."
Samantha Reese and Rebecca Castro of Spartanburg were among those who attended the rally. They plan to vote Nov. 8. Both said abortion is the most important issue.
"I hate that I don't feel I have a right to my own body," Castro said. "I don't want to feel like I have to move to have a better quality of life."
Reese said many of her friends had no interest in the race until the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
"Before, they were like whatever happens happens," she said. "Now more people are becoming aware of how poorly everyone, especially minorities and women, are being treated."
Besides supporting abortion rights, Cunningham also supports legalizing marijuana and expunging the records of those convicted of marijuana offenses. He also supports sports betting, investing in clean energy jobs and moving toward eliminating the state income tax.
Cunningham said he supports fixing more roads and raising starting teacher pay from $36,000 to $50,000 by 2030 with revenues from legalized marijuana and sports betting.
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Voter turnout is key
As is generally the case, voter turnout is the key. Statewide, the turnout in the 2020 general election was 72%. In 2018 during a mid-term election, turnout statewide was 55%.
"Who wins depends on who shows up to vote and what they want," said Danielle Vinson, professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University. "Some, probably most, will rely solely on their partisan identification to make that decision.
"For others, especially those who don't fit comfortably in either party or who aren't typically politically active, whether they vote and how they vote will depend on the kind of information they get from and about the candidates (in the weeks ahead)."
The age factor
Cunningham, 40, is a little more than half as old as incumbent Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, and Cunningham is letting voters know it.
"He's been a politician literally longer than I've been alive," Cunningham said of 75-year-old McMaster during a recent campaign event in Spartanburg. "He makes the argument for us the fact that we need term limits in South Carolina. And age limits."
In his first TV ad called "Geriatric Oligarchy," Cunningham compared politicians to other career fields with mandatory retirement ages, including judges and airline pilots.
“The folks who are making a career out of politics are making a mess of our country," Cunningham stated. "That’s why it’s time to put term limits and age limits on politicians, to bring new blood and new ideas to the table.
"Our campaign is not about Democrat vs. Republican or about left vs. right. It’s about the past vs. the future. It’s about new ideas vs. no ideas.”
McMaster doesn't shy away from his decades of experience, nor does he back away from a political fight.
Responding to Cunningham's ad that he is too old to deal with today's issues in South Carolina, McMaster launched a 30-second TV ad titled "Frat Boy Joe."
In the ad, a voice-over states "Joe drinks beer in Congress, Joe blows a foghorn in congressional hearings, Joe wants to be internet famous, Joe loves weed, and voted against the police, Joe voted 88% with Pelosi" and "So Joe lost his seat in Congress … now he wants to be Governor."
"No thanks Joe, but we’ll call if we have a frat party," the voice-over concludes.
During speaking events, McMaster often brings up how South Carolina's economy has continued to thrive even with COVID-19 restrictions during the pandemic.
"Governor McMaster signed into law the largest tax cut in South Carolina history, he's fighting for veterans, and pay raises for law enforcement and teachers, and announcing jobs and capital investment," campaign spokesman Mark Knoop said.
Since taking office, McMaster has announced more than 64,500 jobs and $19 billion in capital investment, Knoop said.
Within striking distance
According to a recent poll conducted by the Cunningham-Casey campaign, the race has tightened and the Democrat trails McMaster by 7 points.
"In 2018, Joe Cunningham started the general election down by eight points,” Cunningham spokesman Tyler Jones said in an email. “Three months later, he went on to pull off the biggest upset of the entire midterm cycle and flip a district that hadn't voted for a Democrat in 40 years."
Meanwhile, Woodard said he predicts McMaster will win by a 55% to 45% margin.
"I think Henry is the epitome of boring, but that is what voters want," Woodard said.
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This article originally appeared on Herald-Journal: Dem Cunningham hopes to unseat McMaster in SC governor's race