Photos by Ruta Smith

Joe Cunningham, with postcards in mailboxes and ads on the radio, online and on TV, has reached near-celebrity status as a freshman Democratic congressman. But on Nov. 3, voters will choose whether to keep him flying up to Washington.

One of his four brothers, Luke, called his brother “zen-like” amid all the attention — which included shouts of “I’m voting for Joe!” and “So you do like dogs!” on a recent Sunday at James Island County Park. Despite his role as an accessible public servant, Luke said Joe still makes time for family.

“Everyone thinks he’s this super nice guy. What’s worse is that he’s even nicer in person,” Luke said with a laugh.

And Rep. Cunningham’s gotten some things done, too. President Donald Trump signed three bills that he sponsored (Great American Outdoors Act, Tele-hearings at Veterans Affairs and Defense Access Road Enhancement, according to GovTrack). 

Cunningham said having the bills signed into law in his first term, by a Republican president, is “unheard of.”

“That’s more than any other member of South Carolina’s delegation besides (Majority Whip James) Clyburn and (U.S. Sen. Lindsey) Graham,” he said.

But while the House passed his out-right ban on offshore drilling — Cunningham’s signature issue on the 2018 campaign trail — that one never met the president’s pen. 

On shaky ground

Cunningham’s race against Republican state Rep. Nancy Mace could come down to just a couple thousand votes and, with Trump at the top of the ballot in a red state, the margin could just as easily favor his opponent, a likelihood he said he’s aware of in a district he wasn’t expected to win in the first place.

The district was a Republican stronghold since 1981 with Cunningham being preceded by libertarian-leaning Mark Sanford and Tea Party darling Tim Scott.

In 2018, Sanford was unseated in the June primary by former state Rep. Katie Arrington, who had the support of Trump (unlike Sanford). But Cunningham eked out a win by about 4,000 votes. 

But, 2020 has become the proving ground of whether District 1 is purple or if 2018 was a fluke. The Cook Political Report listed the race as “leans Democratic” as of Oct. 8, a similar rating to the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics — good news for Cunningham, but still showing a tight race.

You might recognize Cunningham’s dog, Teddy

On the issues

Despite the commercials showing Cunningham kicking back with a beer, when he’s home, he said he’s with his 2-year-old son Boone and wife Amanda. He said his family is the reason why he will limit himself to three terms in Washington. 

“I need to be and I want to be spending time with Boone, especially as he’s getting older,” Cunningham said. 

And, Boone has shaped his father’s politics:

“The reason I get up every morning, the reason I want to continue doing this is I think about my son, Boone. I think about the, you know, what kind of country, what kind of state, what kind of district that he’s gonna grow up in. And making sure we preserve our green space and making sure we don’t have oil rigs off our coastline. Make sure we have clean air clean drinking water. These, this isn’t too much to ask for. But, all these things are under threat.”

Cunningham has voted to mitigate climate change in addition to his legislation banning offshore drilling and seismic testing. He said a second term would bring more of that same fight.

In his second year in office, Cunningham faced the coronavirus pandemic and calls for justice in policing across racial lines. Cunningham said the pandemic and the extrajudicial killings of Black people have laid bare the disparities.

Cunningham grew up in the small town of Kuttawa, Kentucky. The town has a current population that is more than 97 percent white, but Cunningham said he grew up having friends of color and considers them friends to this day. In South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, one in five constituents is Black.

Cunningham signed onto the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which was in response to a chokehold death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis. The bill passed the House, but met a swift and quiet death in the Republican-controlled Senate.

While bipartisanship has eluded his tenure in office between both chambers, he said it’s a goal he’s working toward as he develops deeper relationships with Republicans on the Hill. 

As of a few weeks ago, Sapiens was on his nightstand. The book suggests the reason human beings became the world’s dominant species is its ability for individuals to cooperate flexibly. He said cooperation was actually the thing that surprised him the most in his first term in Congress.

“You seek out these people who may not agree with you on everything and build those relationships. You build that trust and then use that as a foundation to work on effective legislation that can make a difference,” Cunningham said. “People get along a lot more than you think by watching TV.”