A South Carolina Democrat's Impeachment Holdout

Oct 14, 2019
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In South Carolina, Congressman Joe Cunningham, a Democrat, won his district by a slim margin just two years after Trump won the same district by double digits. Now he faces reelection with Trump on the ballot in 2020. Cunningham is considered one of the most endangered Democrats in the house. His strategy is to emphasize local issues and try to ignore the all-consuming impeachment investigation in the Capitol. NPR's Tim Mak has more.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: South Carolina's 1st Congressional District is in the state's low country, so-called because it lies along the coast.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

MAK: The district is also solidly Republican. It elected President Trump by a margin of 13 percentage points in 2016.

GIBBS KNOTTS: There's a big connection to the land here. You've got tons of marshland. You've got all the creeks and the inshore areas that are just really beautiful.

MAK: That's professor Gibbs Knotts from the College of Charleston, who points out that Cunningham won in large part by opposing offshore drilling, something that has bipartisan support here due to the area's natural beauty. And Cunningham has made this local focus his motto.

JOE CUNNINGHAM: I want to go up there to put the low country first, put low country over party.

MAK: Over this recess, he is meeting with veterans and fishermen in the district to stress his work on kitchen table issues. On Thursday, he sat for a roundtable discussion about Alzheimer's at Alice's Clubhouse. That's a daycare for seniors with early to mid-stage Alzheimer's and dementia.

(CROSSTALK)

MAK: South Carolina Republicans, eager to retake this seat, have targeted him personally. Drew McKissick, the state Republican chairman, said that in a district that so overwhelmingly supported Trump in 2016, Cunningham must come out against impeachment.

DREW MCKISSICK: I mean, he's trying to stay on the fence. He's trying to stay in the middle of the road. And, you know, the only thing you're going to find in the middle of the road is roadkill.

MAK: Cunningham emphasized investigations rather than that other I-word. Even though the impeachment inquiry is already underway, he's still keeping his distance.

CUNNINGHAM: I've been supportive of an investigation to get to the bottom of the facts. And, you know...

MAK: Is there a distinction between an investigation to get to the bottom of the facts and an impeachment inquiry?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, I mean, I guess I'll leave it to other people to decide, like, what - you know, as to the details of that.

MAK: With the demographics of his district, Cunningham cannot win reelection without the support of independent-minded Republicans. One such individual is Dawn Hofmann (ph), who says she absolutely opposes impeachment and supports Trump.

DAWN HOFMANN: I think they're wasting our money. It's a witch hunt.

MAK: But she likes Cunningham's push against offshore drilling. Here's what she said when asked if she would vote for him.

HOFMANN: I think he has been effective with the non-drilling. Yeah. I mean, right now, I would. I don't know. We'll see what happens in the next year.

MAK: And then there are voters like Jimmy Carroll, the Republican mayor of a town called Isle of Palms. He voted for Cunningham in 2018. Carroll opposes Trump, but he thinks impeachment is unnecessarily divisive.

JIMMY CARROLL: We got bigger problems to worry about than impeachment. I think there is probably some lines crossed. But is it worth pursuing? No.

MAK: Carroll says that he prefers Cunningham's position and will be supporting the congressman.

CARROLL: I like the more rational approach of let's look before we jump.

MAK: Even if his constituents prefer it, Cunningham's position may ultimately be unsustainable. If Speaker Nancy Pelosi brings articles of impeachment to the House floor, as seems more and more likely, he will be forced to cast the vote one way or another. Tim Mak, NPR News, Charleston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.