Tuesday night’s debate between 1st Congressional District candidates Joe Cunningham and Katie Arrington was, like most televised duels, a re-treading of both campaigns’ main talking points.
The political leaning of the auditorium at the Lightsey Chapel at Charleston Southern University was evident before the cameras were even on. The audience erupted into considerably louder applause when Cunningham, an attorney from West Ashley, followed Arrington, a one-term state representative from Summerville, onto the stage.
What followed was a spit-fire round of questions touching on everything from flooding to medical marijuana.
Neither candidate ventured too far to either end of the spectrum. Both said they opposed offshore drilling, supported medical marijuana and the Second Amendment, and disagreed with insurance plans discriminating against pre-existing conditions.
The debate was hosted and aired by WCIV-TV, ABC News 4.
On offshore drilling:
Arrington touted her proximity to the White House more than once, arguing that her relationship with President Donald Trump would be more beneficial to Lowcountry residents. (Trump endorsed Arrington during her primary against Rep. Mark Sanford. In a tweet on Election Day, he called the former governor of South Carolina “nothing but trouble.”)
“I’m not for drilling off the coast of South Carolina,” Arrington clarified at one point. “But the only person who can give an exception is the President of the United States. I clearly had a meeting with him regarding this, the vice president, and senior administration officials to make sure we have an exception, but understand I will have a seat at the table. Mr. Cunningham wrote a letter that no one will read for the next two years.”
The most pronounced differences between the candidates included some sharp moments of political theater.
On minority outreach:
On Wed. Oct. 3, Arrington’s campaign sent out a press release announcing endorsements from nine African-American community leaders.
Answering a question about minority voters during Tuesday’s debate, Arrington brought up the endorsements. Cunningham challenged her to name all nine supporters, ceding much of his own time to the freshman state representative.
He counted their names off with his fingers as she answered.
“Go ahead, that’s two,” Cunningham said.
“Mr. Cunningham, I don’t understand the point of this,” Arrington retorted.
The back-and-forth was quickly cut off by moderator Dean Stephens.
Andrew Boucher, a consultant with Arrington’s campaign, later cited an obscure racist meme of the business leaders as part of the reason why the campaign is apprehensive about naming them.
“The retribution that they have gotten since then, it’s up to them for them to come back up and say their names,” Arrington said in an interview after the debate. “One of the gentleman, I can tell you, lost a contract because of it, and I don’t stand for that. Anybody that’s going to take away someone’s right to say, ‘I support this one,’ and punish them, is not something that I condone or I’ll take.”
On campaign finance and ethics:
The candidates also sparred about campaign finance.
“I’m gonna be able to stand up to Big Pharma because I’m not taking their money,” Cunningham said during a question about the national opioid crisis.
Arrington shot back that Cunningham is taking “Nancy Pelosi’s laundered money,” an attempt to tie the Charleston attorney to national Democrats including Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.
“None of those people have donated to our campaign,” Cunningham said in an interview after the debate.
Cunningham out-raised Arrington in the third quarter of 2018, bringing in $865,199 compared to Arrington’s $539,478. Cunningham’s campaign ended September with $543,125.26 in the bank, compared to Arrington’s $339,006.91.
“When I hear people talk about this race, what they’re talking about is offshore drilling and the amount of money that’s been raised,” said Charleston County Democratic Party Chair Brady Quirk-Garvan in a phone interview with City Paper. “A Democrat out-raising a Republican is kind of rare and those are really the two driving issues I hear about this race.”
Not surprisingly, abortion also proved to be a sticking point. Cunningham, who said he “supports a woman’s right to choose under the law of Roe v. Wade,” criticized his opponent for protesting outside of a Planned Parenthood clinic “with a bullhorn.”
Arrington responded that she was not protesting, but praying.
“I will make no apologies for standing for sanctity of life,” she said, adding that she is opposed to using taxes to fund abortions, something that, except in extreme cases, is already illegal under the Hyde Amendment, a federal legislative provision that is closely followed in South Carolina.
The race for South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, which stretches from Charleston County to Hilton Head Island and covers most of the state’s coast, will be decided on Nov. 6. Love Best of Charleston? Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.
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