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Former S.C. congressman Joe Cunningham and state Sen. Mia McLeod spar over who is best to represent Democrats in the general election for governor

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CHARLESTON, S.C. — Democrat Joe Cunningham became a national political star in 2018 when he pulled off a rare electoral feat. Not since 1978 — four years before Cunningham was born — had a Democrat won South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District.

Two years later in 2020, Cunningham lost his seat to Nancy Mace, The Citadel’s first female graduate, by 1.3 percentage points.

Now, Cunningham, 40, is vying for another major upset, against Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who has been endorsed by former president Donald Trump, in November. But in the past two weeks, the Charleston attorney’s main primary opponent, state Sen. Mia McLeod, has stormed into view with aggressive tweets and strategic moves. McLeod is the first Black woman to run for governor in South Carolina, a fact that has been central to her late push. Early this month, her campaign manager, Heidi Young, tweeted, presumably in reference to Cunningham, that “White Savior complex is on the ballot.”

South Carolina’s Black voters have a history as a powerful voting bloc — they saved Joe Biden’s presidential candidacy in the 2020 Democratic primary. And in a state where women and African Americans outnumber men and White Americans in Democratic primary elections, race and gender might be powerful motivating factors.

The race between Cunningham and McLeod, the top contenders in a primary that includes three other candidates, contrasts differing general election strategies in a state that has not sent a Democrat to statewide office since 2006: appeal to crossover voters in the purple urban areas or mobilize the Democratic base behind the first female, African American nominee for governor.

“It would bring national attention to the state if Senator McLeod is the nominee,” said Christine DeVries, McLeod’s press representative, adding,: “People want to see themselves represented in their government.”

Yet some prominent Democrats say that after 12 relatively quiet years as a state legislator, McLeod could never garner the enthusiasm needed to win the general election. Todd Rutherford (D), the state’s House minority leader and one of South Carolina’s most prominent Black politicians, endorsed Cunningham last week.

“One of the things I absolutely had to make clear is that she is no Stacey Abrams,” said Rutherford, referring to the Georgia Democrat and voting rights advocate who narrowly lost her bid to become the nation’s first Black female governor in 2018 and is making a second run for the office this year.

Rutherford cited three bills McLeod has ushered through the South Carolina legislature, two of which were for commemorative license plates.

The endorsement set off a bitter tweet exchange with McLeod. On June 7, she said Rutherford was “barely holding on as minority leader.”

McLeod, 53, declined to comment for this story.

Rutherford said he endorsed Cunningham because of his rare, proven ability to win as a Democrat in South Carolina and for his record introducing successful bills in Washington, even during a Republican presidency.

In South Carolina, he said, Democrats have to “reach across the aisle and do things that are palatable to Republicans. That’s how you get things done, and I think Joe knows how to do that.”

Trump shunned Nancy Mace. Can she survive a GOP primary anyway?

In 2020, Jaime Harrison, now the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, ran to oust Republican Sen. Lindsey O. Graham from the seat he has held for nearly 20 years. Harrison, a Black man, raised over $100 million, and Democrats around the country watched eagerly to see whether he could pull off the upset. Harrison lost by 10 percentage points.

Cunningham said that contest spoke volumes about the need to appeal to crossover moderates. “The fact is, we’re not Georgia. We don’t have Atlanta. The numbers are just not there,” he said. “We’ve got to energize the base and get Democrats out, but we also have to pull people over. And I’ve already been successful in getting those folks into the tent.”

An underdog fighting for attention

Going into Tuesday’s primary, McLeod is at a distinct disadvantage. She lacks name recognition outside of her Columbia-area district, and in the year since announcing her candidacy, she has raised just under a half-million dollars. Cunningham’s total neared $2 million this week, enough to fund TV spots in the state’s major markets. In the final weeks of the campaign, McLeod fought to hold a televised debate, which took place last week. In contrast, the 2018 Democratic primary included three debates.

“There are certain disadvantages you have as a woman of color running for statewide office,” said DeVries, who added that McLeod has attended “five or six or seven events every day,” and “the press just has not been there.” In addition to the lack of attention from the news media, McLeod has struggled to raise money and has had a minimal paid media presence in Charleston, the state’s largest population center.

On June 13, McLeod received an endorsement from Cunningham’s ex-wife via an Instagram post: “It’s been too many years since a woman held the mic, it’s your turn.”

Tyler Jones, Cunningham’s campaign manager, acknowledged the unfortunate optics of the race, but he placed the responsibility for McLeod’s lack of media coverage on the candidate. It’s only in the final weeks, through eye-catching tweets like those attacking Rutherford, that McLeod has garnered notable media attention.

“She’s not just a random person. She’s a sitting state senator, an African American female … she’s been in office for 12 years, she’s got lots of connections, and she’s run several times in somewhat competitive races,” he said. “She just wasn’t able to capitalize on that, and that’s not on anybody but her.”

A crossover candidate in a polarized party

McLeod has criticized Cunningham for voting against a $15 minimum wage while in Congress. Cunningham defends the vote as a demonstration of why he’s a better fit to lead in a state where he represents the minority party.

“That bill would have eliminated tip wages for restaurant workers, and I represented a district that is huge with tourism and the food and beverage industry,” said Cunningham, whose district included Charleston and Hilton Head Island. “What we could have gotten done is $12 [an] hour, and I had Republicans coming up to me saying they would support that. I’m not going to go out there and mislead people and say that I can get $15 [an] hour done with a Republican-controlled legislature.”

But DeVries downplayed the importance of appealing to Republicans or moderates.

“Joe Cunningham wants to turn some Republicans over to him,” she said. “We believe that the best strategy is to get every Democrat to vote for the gubernatorial candidate.”

Harrison’s Senate race in 2020 suggests problems with that theory, and if Cunningham, who started the primary campaign as the front-runner, wins Tuesday, it will be because a significant number of African American voters chose him. Yet his campaign will have to immediately find ways to appeal to those who did not.

“I’m a little worried about how the first day of the general is going to go,” said Jones, the campaign manager. “There is a racial dynamic to this primary and within the Democratic Party these days. There are going to be some folks who will be very upset if Mia doesn’t win. But that’s not Joe’s fault.”

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