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Democrat Joe Cunningham flips SC’s 1st District seat, held by Republicans since 1981

Democrat nominee for Congress Joe Cunningham reacts after voting at St. Andrews School of Math and Science in Charleston, S.C., Tuesday, November 6, 2018. Mic Smith, AP

In a stunning upset, a Democrat has won South Carolina’s coastal 1st Congressional District for the first time in 40 years.

Political newcomer Joe Cunningham narrowly defeated Republican state Rep. Katie Arrington Tuesday, flipping from red to blue a district that Republican President Donald Trump won by 13 points just two years ago. The Associated Press called the tight race at 2 a.m. Wednesday.

The 36-year-old Charleston attorney’s victory — by 3,509 votes out of 268,111, or 1.4 percent — gives South Carolina two Democrats in Congress for the first time since former House Budget Committee chairman John Spratt, D-York, was voted out of office in 2010.

Cunningham will replace U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, the Charleston Republican whom Arrington beat in the June GOP primary after highlighting the two-time congressman’s criticisms of Trump and pledging to support the president’s agenda in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, all six of South Carolina’s incumbent congressmen kept their seats in landslide victories.

In the Palmetto State’s most competitive race of the 2018 election cycle, Cunningham proved one of S.C. Democrats’ strongest candidates in years.

Cunningham’s staunch opposition to drilling off the Atlantic Coast earned him endorsements from several Republican mayors in the Lowcountry. He out-fundraised Arrington roughly 2 to 1, according to their most recent filings.

Cunningham positioned himself as a moderate who would work across party lines and keep his politics civil. He painted Arrington – a 47-year-old first-term S.C. House member – as a partisan who would only further the tribalism in Washington, D.C., that frustrates many voters.

“Our message is resonating with folks here in the district,” Cunningham told The State. “Putting people over politics and putting Lowcountry over party. It sends the message that folks are tired of the divisiveness, the negative rhetoric that’s coming out of D.C., that’s coming from the other side.”

Cunningham’s momentum saw him added to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red-to-Blue” program — giving him access to national money and resources, including a program focused on turning out African-American voters.

“It’s been a really well run campaign by Cunningham,” said College of Charleston political science professor Gibbs Knotts. “He’s running it in a perfect year. His message of bringing people together is particularly good in this era of Donald Trump and polarization.”

Arrington countered Cunningham by nationalizing the race, tying her opponent to Democrats disliked by S.C. Republicans, including U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, both California Democrats.

“Will you let Nancy Pelosi claim victory to implement her ‘San Francisco values’ in the Lowcountry by voting for my opponent?” Arrington tweeted Tuesday morning.

She also focused on proposing solutions to coastal flooding, a major concern in the Charleston area, and insisted she opposes drilling off the S.C. coast. As Cunningham attempted to draw contrasts between their stances, Arrington said she had already begun pushing the Trump Administration for an exemption to keep drilling rigs away.

As pundits began hedging their predictions that the seat would stay red, national Republicans came to Arrington’s aid.

The National Republican Campaign Committee spent more than $87,000 on ads to boost Arrington’s chances. High-profile Republicans also campaigned for Arrington. Second lady Karen Pence campaigned with her Saturday in Charleston, and Donald Trump Jr. held a rally Monday for Arrington in Hilton Head.

With the victory, Cunningham joins U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia as South Carolina’s only Democrats in Congress.

Meanwhile, Arrington was denied the opportunity to become South Carolina’s first congresswoman in 25 years and only the second ever to be elected to a full term.

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