As Primary Approaches, South Carolina Republicans Vows to Return Congressional District to the GOP
CHARLESTON, S.C. – The theme of the contest is most succinctly spelled out on the campaign signs that have appeared this week in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, like so many clumps of blooming Black-Eyed Susans.
“Take Back the Lowcountry,” the signs of Republican primary frontrunner, State Rep. Nancy Mace declare.
One of four Republicans competing in a June 9 primary for the right to challenge incumbent Rep. Joe Cunningham in November, her simple message reflects a state GOP that’s still smarting from the Democrat’s surprise victory in 2018.
Before Cunningham eked out his one percentage point victory over Republican Katie Arrington, the district along South Carolina’s southeastern coastline had reliably voted for the GOP candidate for nearly four decades.
His win was considered even more remarkable because President Donald Trump had crushed Hillary Clinton in the district just two years earlier, handily beating her by 13 percentage points.
Arrington surely sought to align herself with the president, presenting herself as a vocal supporter of his desire to allow offshore oil drilling off the South Carolina coast.
Cunningham opposed offshore drilling and, in a district that is at least as environmentally-minded as it is conservative, rode the issue all the way to the U.S. House of Representatives.
However, Arrington and her supporters never accepted that she was simply on the wrong side of the congressional district’s defining issue that year. Instead, they blamed former S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford, whom Arrington had defeated in the GOP congressional primary in 2018, but who stayed in the race as an independent.
“We lost because Mark Sanford could not understand that this race was about the conservative movement — and not about him,” Arrington roared during her concession speech.
Like Mace, the three other Republicans in next week’s primary want to ensure Cunningham is a one-term congressman.
They are Kathy Landing, a councilwoman in the Town of Mount Pleasant, a suburb of Charleston, Chris Cox, the founder of Bikers for Trump, and Brad Mole, a housing official from the Town of Bluffton, and the only African-American in the race.
In some ways, during this strange, pandemic-addled campaign season, they’ve tried to continue Arrington’s strategy of closely aligning themselves with Trump, one local newspaper going so far as suggesting the race will be won by whichever candidate manages to “out-Trump” the others.
At the same time, each is adhering to plans developed by the state GOP in what called its “1st District reclamation project.” Seeking to repair the fractures that dogged the party in 2018, almost all of this year’s candidates claim to be a “unifier.”
By every reliable measure, Mace and Landing are the leaders in the race.
The most recent poll conducted by First Tuesday Strategies, a conservative consulting firm based in South Carolina, surveyed 500 likely voters about a general election match-up with Cunningham. The poll showed both could beat him, albeit by slim margins.
Mace finished with a 1.35% lead over Cunningham in the poll, and Landing did slightly better, garnering a 1.66% lead over the incumbent. But both leads were well within the poll’s 4.4% margin of error.
A recent poll conducted for the Mace campaign showed she has the support of about 42% of the GOP primary electorate, compared to Landing’s 13%.
Mace, who is a second-term state legislator and was the first woman to graduate from Charleston’s Citadel Military College, has already received the endorsement of the top two ranking members of House Republican leadership — House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La.
She’s also been endorsed by the conservative fiscal groups, Americans for Prosperity and Club for Growth, the latter of which has spent $410,000 on advertising describing Mace as a person Trump can Trust.
Mace recently told the Post and Courier newspaper’s Caitlin Byrd that only she has the standing and support to bring the party successfully across the finish line in November.
“The nominee is going to have to raise a minimum of $3 million in three to four months to win this seat back,” she said. “Joe Cunningham already has $2.6 million. We need a candidate with the right organization, the right fundraising energy and work ethic to win this seat back.”
Landing, 57, has been endorsed by a number of local Republican leaders as well as Jim DeMint, a former U.S. senator and past Heritage Foundation president and the political arm of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
She’s campaigning, in part, on the premise that she is the candidate best poised to appeal to suburban moms in the region, a segment of the population that has been turning away from Republicans in recent elections.
“I proudly admit that I’m not the favored candidate of the Washington special interests but rather that I am the trusted, business-minded conservative unifying Republicans in our district to beat Joe Cunningham,” Landing said in a statement.
Fifty-four-year-old Chris Cox might be described as the character in the race. A one-time, self-described “starving artist,” he first gained something of national notoriety when he was photographed cutting the lawn near the Lincoln Memorial during the 2013 federal government shutdown.
He was in D.C. at the time, he told reporters, because he’d been on the road trying to sell his wares before winter.
He formed “Bikers for Trump” in 2016, and was credited by the Trump campaign in playing a key role in the president’s election.
Since then, he’s traded in his biker leather for a suit and tie as he participates in what he called his “new wild ride,” running for office in his own right.
Mole, 43, has largely been running on the promise that he can help expand the Republican base among voters of color in ways his competitors cannot.
Should Mace fall below the 50% mark in support on June 9, she and the second-place finisher (likely Landing) will square off in a head-to-head runoff election on June 23.
For much of the campaign, the pandemic has kept the candidates from actually facing off against one another.
Instead they’ve relied on billboards, TV commercials, digital ads and campaign mailings to define themselves and what they want to achieve if elected.
All that changed this past Tuesday, when the four Republicans met for their first in-person candidates debate at the Charleston Marriott hotel.
What was clear at the event, which was hosted by the Charleston County Republican Party and featured both socially-distanced candidates on stage and a socially-distanced audience in front of them, was that policy differences between the four candidates was minimal.
But it was equally clear that everyone in attendance considered Mace the candidate to beat.
All three of her opponents attacked her Tuesday night, criticizing her as a candidate hand-picked by Washington insiders.
Landing noted Mace had received $1 million in donations from “out-of-state and Washington special interests,” plus $646,000 in itemized out-of-state donations.
“People are trying to buy this election right now and nobody can deny that,” she said. “The facts speak for themselves. What you need is you need someone that is the principled Lowcountry insider. We are the people that we want. We don’t want people to buy this election.”
That attack made Mace laugh.
“I just don’t know how to respond to people who just make stuff up. I don’t know how you defend something that’s totally unfounded, not based in reality or based in fact,” Mace said.
The other line of attack concerned the short-term role Mace played on Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Mace has said she was hired to work the South Carolina primary and went on to help with phone bank services in two other states before returning to her job selling real estate.
All three of her opponents raised the issue of her leaving the Trump campaign, suggesting in veiled ways that there was something more to her departure from the Trump camp.
“Last night’s debate was full of conspiracy theories and lies,” Mace spokesman Mara Mellstrom told Fitsnews.com, a must-read for South Carolina political news. “This is how people in D.C. act. We don’t need any more of that. This is also what happens when you’re 32 points behind and become totally unhinged.”