MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. — All politics is local.
It’s a maxim that first-term Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., is betting on as he simultaneously gears up for one of the most competitive congressional races in the country — and braces for the House impeachment inquiry to take center stage in Washington.
Cunningham, 37, a former ocean engineer and Charleston-based lawyer who won his seat in 2018 by emphasizing local issues, is one of the dwindling number of House Democrats who have remained openly skeptical about impeaching President Donald Trump.
Although he voted in favor of a House resolution last week that laid out the ground rules for proceeding with the impeachment inquiry, Cunningham cautioned that no one should conflate his vote with support for removing Trump from office.
"Today’s vote is not a vote on impeachment. It is not even a vote to approve of the impeachment inquiry," Cunningham said in a video he shared following the vote. "And as I’ve stated multiple times over and over again, I have yet to make up my mind about impeachment."
South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, which covers over 100 miles of coast from north of Charleston down to Hilton Head, has long been a Republican stronghold. The district voted for Trump by more than 13 points in 2016 and for Mitt Romney by more than 18 points in 2012. Cunningham won the district by a slim 1.4 percentage points, becoming the first Democrat to represent the area since the 1970s.
Now, national Republicans are wagering that the House inquiry, which is likely to force Cunningham to cast a public “yes” or “no” vote on whether to impeach Trump, could cost him his re-election.
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“The Democrats’ obsession with impeaching and removing President Trump from office will cost Joe Cunningham his seat in November,” said Camille Gallo, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, in a statement to NBC News.
Political strategists on both sides of the aisle say Trump-district Democrats like Cunningham have a delicate balance to strike. On one hand, he risks turning off a liberal base that is itching to see Trump go down. On the other hand, if he comes across as overly enthusiastic about impeaching the president, he could alienate some independent and Republican voters who were critical to his winning coalition in 2018.
Cunningham's congressional office and campaign did not respond to requests for comment. But in conversations with voters in the 1st District, both Republicans and Democrats say that, for now, impeachment is not top of mind when assessing his first term.
“It's on the radar, but it's not high on the radar,” said Joe Darby, senior pastor at African Methodist Church in Charleston. “I hear about his vote against minimum wage much more than where he is on impeachment.”
“It's very local, especially with [Charleston] growing so fast,” said Thomas Woelfel, secretary for the Charleston County Republican Party, expressing some uncertainty over how much voters were paying attention to news out of Washington. “A lot of people are focused on what’s going on right here.”
Of course, that could all change in the coming weeks as the impeachment hearings become public and play out live on cable news.
Still, Cunningham has earned a level of goodwill from voters across the political spectrum with his measured approach.
“It's not like people are saying ‘why in the world is he doing that.’ I think everyone understands why he's doing it. We are realistic about the district,” said Lynn Cordy, a member of the “Liberal Ladies of the Lowcountry” in Hilton Head, speaking of Cunningham’s reservations toward impeachment. “It's just like the people who say they hold their nose and vote for Trump. It might be the same here among Democrats.”
Even some Republicans who are eager to win back the district in 2020 suggest that Cunningham’s approach is not necessarily problematic.
“It’s pretty split,” said Austin Burgess, a member of the Republican Society at The Citadel, a military college in Charleston, speaking about campus reaction to the impeachment inquiry. “There are a lot of people in the club who are inclined to support Trump, but there are certain cadets who think: ‘Hey, what about virtues? What about morals? Is that not important anymore? Do we not at least investigate?’”
“He’s done very well so far at portraying himself as a statesman who’s looking to make an informed decision based on evidence,” said Will Folks, who runs the South Carolina political blog FitsNews and was a former spokesperson for Republican Gov. Mark Sanford. “[Republicans’] argument against him is weak, and I think the average voter sees that.”
Folks could be on to something.
A recent poll of likely Republican voters in Cunningham’s district from First Tuesday Strategies, a Columbia-based GOP consulting firm, found that 24 percent either strongly support or somewhat support a vote by the House to impeach Trump. That is slightly more support among Republicans in the 1st District than compared to Republicans nationally.
“It’s not really that surprising,” said Matt Moore, a partner at the firm. “The 1st District is known for very independent Republicans.”
Even Nancy Mace, the front-runner in the Republican primary to challenge Cunningham, did not find it beneficial to stake out a hard position on impeachment in a phone interview with NBC News.
When asked how she would vote on impeachment if she were in the House, Mace responded, “The transcript is out there in black and white for everyone to read and decide for themselves.”