Sam Spence file

And just as predictable as sunrise, the race to be the next governor of South Carolina is on.  

Former Congressman Joe Cunningham of Charleston, a one-term Democrat who lost a bid for reelection in November, came out of the gate quickly this week to try to nab the seat occupied by GOP Gov. Henry McMaster.


“The challenges we face in this state aren’t because of our people, they’re because of career politicians like Henry McMaster who have been in politics longer than I’ve been alive,” Cunningham told Statehouse Report, City Paper‘s sister publication. “And after 20 years of one-party rule and one way of thinking, it’s time for something different — something new.”

Cunningham, 38, was born in 1982 at which time McMaster was serving as the state’s U.S. Attorney after being appointed by Ronald Reagan, the nation’s 40th president. McMaster went on to run unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate and lieutenant governor before being elected attorney general twice statewide. He later lost a 2010 bid for governor, followed by 2014 win for lieutenant governor. McMaster became governor in 2017 after Gov. Nikki Haley became United Nations ambassador in the Trump administration. McMaster then won a full term as governor in 2018 with an eight-point victory over Democratic nominee James Smith of Columbia.

Source: Wikipedia

So now comes Cunningham, who announced his bid for a general election 18 months away. First, though, he has to win the Democratic nomination. But by coming out so early — and with strong initial fundraising — Cunningham may just scare away other Democratic candidates in what is seen as a tough race for a Democrat to win anyway. The last Democratic governor was elected in 1998 and currently there are no Democrats in statewide elected roles.

But Cunningham’s early numbers are impressive, as the candidate related: “We’re building a campaign unlike anything this state has ever seen. We raised almost half a million dollars from grassroots supporters in the first 48 hours of this campaign because people are yearning for new leadership and that’s exactly what I represent.” 

Source: Wikipedia

Still, it won’t be easy, particularly if you look at the solid red band of Republican counties across the top half of the Palmetto State. Not only did Donald Trump carry those counties convincingly — often with more than 70% of the vote in 2020 — but McMaster, who will tell you in a skinny minute that he was the first statewide official to endorse Trump in 2016, has spent years cultivating Upstate voters as his base through a blend of wily conservative politics and appealing to Christian voters. 

But McMaster may have some work to do to keep his supporters in line. Scuttlebutt is that Greenville businessman John Warren is eyeing another run for governor by campaigning to the right of McMaster. And it could work. In 2018, McMaster won a five-way primary by nabbing 42% of the vote, but was forced into a runoff with Warren, who picked up an impressive 46% of the vote in the runoff. Coming that close might tempt him to give it another try as many Republicans would note McMaster, a familiar face with a thick grandfatherly drawl, is no Donald Trump.

One pathway for Cunningham to succeed is to draw Warren as a challenger. He could make the case that he was a safer candidate than someone untested like Warren. But such a race would likely have all of the predictable catcalls and worn themes of right-wing conservatism versus left-wing liberalism.

If Cunningham has McMaster as an opponent, the race would be more nuanced, a battle versus old-school and the upstart, of age and experience versus fresh ideas. But wasn’t that the kind of campaign that Smith tried in 2018?

So we’ll see what time and money bring for 2022. As Cunningham notes, “We’ve defied the odds before and we’re going to do it again.”

Andy Brack is publisher of the Charleston City Paper. Have a comment? Send to:

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.