Now Cunningham, 40, is in the running for another major upset, against Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, which was endorsed by former President Donald Trump in November. But over the past two weeks, the Charleston attorney’s main adversary, State Senator Mia McLeod, has erupted with aggressive tweets and strategic moves. McLeod is the first black woman to run for governor of South Carolina, a fact that was central to her late push. Earlier this month, his campaign manager, Heidi Young, tweeted, presumably in reference to Cunningham, that “the White Savior complex is on the ballot.”
Black voters in South Carolina have a history as a powerful voting bloc — they saved Joe Biden’s presidential bid in the 2020 Democratic primary. And in a state where women and African Americans outnumber men men and white Americans in Democratic primary elections, race and gender could be powerful motivators.
The race between Cunningham and McLeod, the main contenders in a primary that includes three other candidates, contrasts different general election strategies in a state that has not sent a Democrat to statewide office. since 2006: calling on cross-voters in purple urban areas or mobilizing the Democratic base behind the first African-American woman candidate for governor.
“It would bring national attention to the state if Senator McLeod were the nominee,” said Christine DeVries, McLeod’s press secretary, adding, “People want to see themselves represented in their government.”
Still, some prominent Democrats say that after 12 relatively quiet years as a state legislator, McLeod was never able to generate the enthusiasm needed to win the general election. Todd Rutherford (D), state 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’s not Stacey Abrams,” Rutherford said, referring to the Georgia Democrat and suffrage advocate who narrowly lost her candidacy. 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 introduced in the South Carolina legislature, two of which involved commemorative license plates.
The endorsement sparked 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 endorses Cunningham because of his rare and proven ability to win as a Democrat in South Carolina and for his record of introducing successful bills in Washington, even during a Republican presidency.
In South Carolina, he said, Democrats need to “reach out across the aisle and do things that Republicans like.” That’s how we get things done, and I think Joe knows how to do that.
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In 2020, Jaime Harrison, now chairman of the Democratic National Committee, ran to oust Republican Senator Lindsey O. Graham from the seat he has held for nearly 20 years. Harrison, a black man, has raised more than $100 million, and Democrats around the country have watched eagerly if he can pull off the surprise. Harrison is down 10 percentage points.
Cunningham said the contest spoke volumes about the need to appeal to crusader moderates. “The thing is, we’re not Georgia. We don’t have Atlanta. The numbers just aren’t there,” he said. “We have to energize the base and get the Democrats out, but we also have to get the people in. And I’ve already managed to get these people into the tent.
An underdog fighting for attention
Entering Tuesday’s primary, McLeod is at a distinct disadvantage. She lacks recognition outside of her District of Columbia, and in the year since her candidacy was announced, she has raised just under half a million dollars. Cunningham’s total approached $2 million this week, enough to fund TV spots in major markets across the state. In the final weeks of the campaign, McLeod fought to host a televised debate, which took place last week. In contrast, the 2018 Democratic primary featured three debates.
“There are certain downsides that you have as a woman of color showing up at an office statewide,” said DeVries, who added that McLeod attended “five, six, or seven events a day.” and “the press just wasn’t there”. In addition to the lack of news media attention, McLeod struggled to raise funds and 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 up to you.”
Cunningham’s senior adviser Tyler Jones acknowledged the unfortunate optics of the race, but he blamed McLeod’s lack of media coverage on the candidate. It’s only in recent weeks, thanks to catchy tweets like the ones attacking Rutherford, that McLeod has gained media attention.
“She’s not just a random person. She’s a sitting state senator, an African-American woman…she’s been in the job for 12 years, she’s got a lot of connections, and she’s run in somewhat competitive races a few times,” he said. . “She just couldn’t capitalize on that, and it’s not on anyone but her.”
A candidate crossed in a polarized party
McLeod criticized Cunningham for voting against a $15 minimum wage in Congress. Cunningham defends the vote as a demonstration of why he is better suited to lead in a state where he represents the minority party.
“This bill would have eliminated tipping 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 done is $12 [an] hour, and I had Republicans come to me and say they would support that. I’m not gonna go out and mislead people and say I can get $15 [an] hour spent with a Republican-controlled legislature.
But DeVries played down the importance of appealing to Republicans or moderates.
“Joe Cunningham wants to deliver Republicans to him,” she said. “We think the best strategy is to get every Democrat to vote for the gubernatorial nominee.”
Harrison’s 2020 Senate race suggests problems with that theory, and if Cunningham, who started the primary campaign as a frontrunner, wins on Tuesday, it will be because a significant number of African-American voters have it. selected. Yet his campaign will immediately have to find ways to appeal to those who have not.
“I’m a little worried about how the first day of the general is going to go,” said Jones, the campaign’s senior adviser. “There is a racial dynamic in this primary and within the Democratic Party these days. There will be people who will be very upset if Mia doesn’t win. But it’s not Joe’s fault.