Democrat Joe Cunningham thinks he can beat the political odds a second time.
In 2018, Cunningham won a South Carolina congressional seat that national analysts said he could never win. Now, with his sights set on the 2022 South Carolina governor’s race, Cunningham is pitching a big wish list as he starts another campaign where he is expected to face tough odds.
Emboldened by his historic win in 2018 and quick to put his narrow defeat in 2020 behind him, Cunningham said Wednesday that the time is right for a change in South Carolina politics.
And that change, he said, has to start at the top with a new governor.
Ahead of his campaign launch in Charleston on Wednesday night, The State newspaper sat down with Cunningham for an exclusive, one-on-one interview about his decision to enter the race, his concerns and his vision for the state, should he elected.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The State: You lost your congressional seat by 1 point during a highly polarized presidential election year. Why run for governor and not reelection to the U.S. House?
Cunningham: Well, I think you feel the need to go where they are called, quite simply. I went to Congress because I didn’t feel like there were any checks and balances. Since leaving office, in the last few months, I kept looking at all of our state’s problems and everything that’s been going on during this pandemic. I think all the shortcomings of our state government, particularly the governor, was on full display.
I’m concerned about my son, Boone, and I’m concerned about other kids and grand-kids and the future of South Carolina. I just don’t think that South Carolina is reaching her full potential with Governor McMaster.
But South Carolina has a weak governor system. It’s really the legislature that holds most of the power. Why not dig in as a state lawmaker who may have more power than the governor?
I think (the governor’s office) is where you can do the most good, and that’s where you can make the biggest change. You look at where South Carolina is right now: At the bottom of every list you want to be at the top of. You just simply go down the governor’s track record of what he’s done — or more like what he hasn’t done — and that failed leadership is just on full display.
Can you give an example?
Well, he’s refused to expand Medicaid. You know there’s 200,000 working South Carolinians who can’t afford health insurance, and 38 other states have already done that. He vetoed a bill to invest in our infrastructure and our roads. He botched our COVID pandemic. The head of the state health agency went vacant for almost a year during the pandemic. At one time we were last in vaccine distribution. I mean how much more time have you got?
We’ve only got a few minutes.
And I don’t want to spend all our time on that. What I’m saying is it’s a litany. And this is what’s expected of a career politician, someone who has been in one office or another since I’ve been alive.
How then do you differentiate yourself? Right now you are a politician who is trying to jump from one office to another.
I’m a problem-solver. I’m not a career politician. My work in ocean engineering and the practice of law has always been about solving problems. When I was in Congress, I was working with people to get things done. And I think our governor right now cares more about the next election than the next generation.
OK, lets talk about money. Your campaign raised $400,000 in the first 48 hours, but let’s not forget 2020. Jaime Harrison raised $130 million — and that was more than 10 times greater the $10 million he predicted he would need to beat U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham. He still lost by 11 points. What did Jamie do wrong that you’re going to get right?
Well, I’ll let Jaime speak to his campaign. I can tell you that presidential elections and midterms are completely different. It’s like apples and oranges. So if you want to compare statewide races, you need to go back to 2018. You have to go back to when I flipped an R+10 district in 2018, and realize the state is like R+8.
I mean, we’ve gotten so much crossover support, so much energy and so much enthusiasm. People are just tired of the career politicians that have been up in Columbia, including McMaster, and recognize he’s just been asleep at the wheel during this pandemic. He’s wanted his whole life to be governor, but doesn’t want to do the job. He wants the title, but not the job.
And, you know folks want South Carolina to reach her full potential to have better schools, to have better roads, and to have a better healthcare system, but we’re not going to do that with the same old, same old.
So, then what makes you uniquely qualified for this job — and you can’t say it’s being a problem-solver.
My experience. Working in Congress involves working with folks to actually get things done. I do have a track record of getting things done. I was in Congress for two years and I had two of my bills signed into law in a divided government by a Republican president.
A president you voted to impeach.
Well yeah, exactly. But I stand on that track record of actually getting things done. You know, we had one of the biggest environmental conservation bills in the last 50 years, and we had a bill to provide benefits and healthcare to our veterans.
I’ve got a strong record to run on in just in just one term of Congress. When we talk about those accomplishments, it’s a matter of how you get those things done.
In past gubernatorial races in South Carolina, Democrats have put forward someone like yourself: a white moderate Democrat. Those efforts came up short. Just ask James Smith. So what’s your secret sauce here? What are you really going to do differently?
We’re kicking off that 46-county tour tonight to go to every single corner of the state, and talk to folks and meet people where they are. And look, I’m not like everyone else. I’m not like James or Vincent (Sheheen). I flipped a ruby red seat, a gerrymandered seat, one that was tailor-made for Republicans that hadn’t had a Democrat in my lifetime. I flipped that seat in 2018 because I had enormous crossover support, enormous support from Democrats and Republicans.
Speaking of campaigns, I wanted to talk about your idea to shorten the legislative session and to also bar lawmakers from campaigning during session. How short do you want session to be?
That’s something we can talk about, but look at what they’re debating up there. Despite that we are on the tail end of this pandemic, and they’re debating bills on whether or not to bury Donald Trump under the statehouse grounds.
They’re fighting culture wars up there, and the fact is people are stuck in traffic right now as we speak. People don’t have access to health care. People don’t have access to broadband. And the governor takes a trip down to the border for a photo-op. We have real problems in South Carolina that cannot be solved by political posturing. This governor has had his opportunity, and had his chance. He’s shown how he will govern. And he’s failed.
Let’s talk about the Department of Juvenile Justice, a state agency that is once again under fire after another scathing audit. McMaster has been reluctant to call for the resignation of the agency head. What would your response be?
You can look at any agency the governor has touched, and each one of those agencies are fraught with disaster. Look at how the DMV failed to collect about $20 million in fees. Those are tax dollars that are owed to South Carolinians, and there have been no repercussions for that. At DJJ? No repercussions for that. DHEC went without a director for almost a year during the middle of a pandemic. Think about the significance of that: The person in charge of our state health agency was vacant and the governor could have made something happen, but he didn’t. He has a habit of just being asleep at the wheel, and that tells us that he’s incompetent or he just doesn’t care.