• Cook Political Report

COOK POLITICAL REPORT SHIFTS SC-GOV FOUR DAYS AFTER CUNNINGHAM ENTERS RACE


After narrowly losing his re-election bid by just 5,415 votes last fall, this week former Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham announced he is running for South Carolina governor in 2022. It won’t be an easy feat in the least — the last time the Palmetto State elected a Democratic governor was 1998, and the last time a Democrat won statewide was 2006.

But as Cunningham said in his announcement video, he’s been told before that the odds weren’t in his favor. His 2018 victory was one of the biggest upsets on Election Night, winning the Charleston-based 1st District, which Donald Trump had won by 13 points in 2016. In 2020, Trump captured it by just 6 points, but the fact that Cunningham only lost to Republican Nancy Mace by 1 point shows there were plenty of Trump-Cunningham voters. He could have chosen to run again against Mace, but the 1st CD likely to get even redder in redistricting, taking a shot statewide could be the better opportunity for Cunningham — but still a very difficult one.

In just the first 48 hours since announcing, Cunningham announced he’d already raised $400,000, proving his fundraising mettle and online donor base hasn’t lost its shine. That’s more than the $373,000 McMaster raised for the entire first three months of the year, though he has over $1 million in the bank. McMaster won in 2018 over James Smith, 54%-46%, in a good year for Democrats, with the governor spending over $8 million to Smith’s $3.1 million. But Cunningham is on pace to have far more resources to compete statewide.

Cunningham is a good retail politician and comes across incredibly well on TV, but that combination along with a hefty bank account often isn’t enough in South Carolina — just ask now-DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison who finished 10 points behind Sen. Lindsey Graham last fall despite spending more than $130 million. Cunningham may be seen as less partisan than Harrison was too, after amassing a more moderate voting record in the House and voting against Nancy Pelosi as Speaker.

Plus, Governors races are different creatures and this race may not be as nationalized as a federal one would be. There are Democratic governors in Louisiana (R+12), Kansas (R+11) and Kentucky (R+16), which are all redder than South Carolina (R+8). Those races all had unique circumstances, and Cunningham will be trying to oust an incumbent.

Cunningham’s argument against McMaster is that the Republican governor and Trump ally focused too much on partisan priorities such as anti-abortion laws, election legislation and loosening gun laws instead of on the COVID-19 pandemic. The governor was criticized by some for too quickly lifting safety restrictions last year as cases began rising and for opposing a statewide mask mandate, for leaving the state health agency without a permanent director from September 2020 until April 2021 and a slow initial vaccine rollout. Just this week, McMaster said forcing students to wear masks at school was “ridiculous.”

In a study on governors and done last year by a consortium of colleges including Harvard, Northeastern, Rutgers and Northwestern, McMaster’s approval rating on how he handled the crisis was 51 percent in late April. By September, his coronavirus approval had dropped to 36 percent, and in October it ticked up slightly to 40 percent. A Quinnipiac University poll taken July 31-Aug. 3 of last year found McMaster with a 45%-40% approval/disapproval, including approval from a quarter of Democrats and 30 percent of Black voters, with his approval/disapproval on COVID split at 46 percent each. Notably, just over two-thirds of Republicans approved of the job he’s doing, and McMaster could well face a primary challenge, most likely again from businessman John Warren who forced the governor — who had risen to the office when Nikki Haley stepped down to join the Trump administration in 2017 — into a runoff to win a full term in his own right. McMaster won 54%-46%. If McMaster loses in a primary though and someone like Warren wins, Cunningham’s task would be more difficult.

Cunningham, meanwhile, is calling for Medicaid expansion (though that would be tough to pass in a GOP legislature even if he wins) and for fixing South Carolina’s roads, hitting McMaster for vetoing a bill from the legislature to raise the gas tax in order to pay for much-needed infrastructure repairs across the state. This week, even Graham told reporters that Cunningham would be a “formidable opponent” and that Republicans should “take his candidacy seriously.” Cunningham could still face other challengers in the primary, too, including possibly African-American state Sen. Mia McLeod.

Nonetheless, Cunningham’s entrance gives Democrats one of the many pieces they need if there were to be an upset: a solid candidate who can raise money and has a history of overperforming a district’s partisan lean. It’s simply too early to tell what the environment in November 2022 will be either and for now McMaster remains the heavy favorite. However, the race has the potential to become engaged, so in a move that indicates we are watching this contest, but not labeling it competitive just yet, we’re shifting our rating from Solid to Likely Republican.