If there were some imaginary royal crown in South Carolina, the Lowcountry would be the jewel. Sorry Upstate, but South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, which includes the Lowcountry’s beaches, hospitality, history, and economy is hands down better than everywhere else.
If Republicans want to win back the 1st District, they’ll have to deal with Charleston County, which has moved from 40 years of being red, to arguably being a strong purple territory filled with political centrists.
Until the 2018 midterms it was as safe a GOP seat as (insert saying). But then something changed. The GOP incumbent, and former governor, Mark Sanford lost the primary to Katie Arrington — some argue because of a last minute anti-Sanford tweet by President Trump.
Riding on a staunch anti-offshore drilling and “Lowcountry over party” mantra, Democrat Joe Cunningham won. Since then, the Charleston County Republicans, along with the South Carolina GOP, have made it their mission to make sure SC-1 returns to the Grand Old Party.
Mt. Pleasant Councilwoman Kathy Landing recently announced, as has Beaufort County Councilman Mike Covert. S.C. House Rep. Nancy Mace jumped in last week, and there are rumors of Charleston County Councilman Elliott Summey, state Rep. Peter McCoy, and former Charleston County GOP Chairman Larry Kobrovsky entering the fray.
Their first task is to win the nomination next June. Given Trump’s popularity in South Carolina, many will explore ways of out “Trumping” their GOP opponents. That will certainly help secure the nomination, but it could come back to haunt them in the general election.
Why? Because of Charleston County, by far the largest of the district’s five counties, with roughly 117,000 votes in 2018 compared to the other four counties’ combined 170,000. And Joe Cunningham won Charleston County by 17,000 votes.
While President Trump polls high among Republicans throughout the district, in the most recent Emerson poll, he was only +4 against a hypothetical campaign against Joe Biden.
The reason being: Lowcountry voters in the center and center-right are a powerful voting bloc. So powerful that the state attorney general decided to sue the Trump administration in an effort to block seismic testing off our coast. These voters, particularly in Charleston County, are so powerful with their votes as well as their money, that flooding is going to be a central theme in the upcoming mayoral campaign set for November 2019.
Additionally, traditional Southern Republicans who vote straight ticket are being replaced by a younger generation, many of whom voted for Democrats in the 2018 midterms. Couple that with independent minded Republicans moving in and bastions of fiscal conservatism like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the Koch Brothers supporting fiscally responsible Democrats, and you should get the point.
Running a traditional campaign where a candidate goes right for the primary and back to the center for the general election may not work anymore. Arrington went to the right of Sanford and the Cunningham campaign wouldn’t let her back to the center. The result was an unprecedented shift in voters. Not only did Cunningham secure Democratic support, but he also managed to get centrist Republicans to support him. At this point, that support doesn’t seem to have weakened.
Many Republicans I know are keenly waiting to see what happens during the primary season. Sure, I know Republicans that will vote straight ticket even if they don’t like one of the candidates. I also know Republicans that are diehard Trump supporters and no longer care about being fiscal conservatives.
The groups I know the most — the 25-45 year olds, the Reagan fiscal conservatives, the former Republicans who now feel abandoned — and the independents care about similar things: the growing trade deficit (increased by tariffs); the growing national debt (increased by overspending); government overreach into our personal lives; and last but not least, flooding (made worse by climate change and overdevelopment).
If a Republican manages to speak to the issues, and not just be the loudest voice in the room, then I think he or she will certainly give Cunningham a fright and possibly retake the crown.
Rouzy Vafaie is a Mt. Pleasant resident and former Charleston County Republican Party official.