Political News

Democrat who upset House race in South Carolina wants to work with Trump

Posted November 7, 2018 6:10 p.m. EST

— Congressman-elect Joe Cunningham thought it was a "good omen" on Election Day Eve that his 8-month-old son slept through the entire night. It was the first time he'd done so.

The young Democrat flipped a historically Republican South Carolina seat in a race that has garnered much national attention: earlier this year incumbent GOP Rep. Mark Sanford lost his primary to Trump-supporting conservative Katie Arrington. Sanford refused to endorse her (or Cunningham) in the general election, and then the national Republicans swooped in at the last minute, with more than $80,000 in ads in the final days to help Arrington's campaign.

Cunningham's win attracted its own amount of widespread interest from high-profile Democrats. An aide to former Vice President Joe Biden said Biden called Cunningham to congratulate him Wednesday.

As the power in the House shifts to Democrats, leaders from within Cunningham's party have signaled that investigating the Trump White House and administration will be a top priority. But Cunningham is not as interested in oversight.

"We should be focusing on issues that affect people's lives, like making health care more affordable and fixing our infrastructure," he told CNN in a phone interview on Wednesday. "We should let the special counsel finish his investigation first."

In fact, Cunningham said he is "absolutely" open to meeting with President Donald Trump and working across the aisle on issues.

"We want to work with President Trump on things that help the Lowcountry, infrastructure being a main one," he told CNN.

Cunningham, who has never held elected office, said he was not surprised by the victory.

"We knew we were going to win going into this," he said. "The momentum was on our side going into election night. After talking to folks on the ground, I was confident we would come out on top but we knew we were in for a long night." The race was called in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.

What was the winning issue, in Cunningham's opinion? Mostly offshore drilling, he says: "Local issues like that matter."

But he also pointed to his optimistic tone. "There was an overarching theme: breaking through this political tribalism and partisan gridlock that exists in DC. That's what carried the day. Most people in the first district are trying to do away with this political tribalism: extinguish those flames. The message of bringing people together, building bridges not walls."

By contrast, in a recent campaign event with Sen. Lindsey Graham in late October in Charleston, Arrington encouraged chants of "Build the Wall!" and even suggested that her opponents were "evil."

When asked by CNN if the migrant caravan, a major focus for the President and Republicans on the midterm campaign trail, was a losing message for the race, Cunningham said. "She was trying to probably nationalize this race. We were running on local issues. I know immigration is a strong concern for people in this district and across the country."

Cunningham, who ran his election saying that he would not support Nancy Pelosi to be speaker of the House of Representatives, stands by that position.

"My position has been the same since day one and that has not changed," he said, adding that he had not seen what Democratic leaders had said Wednesday in press conferences.

Who does he believe should lead the Democratic Party? Cunningham is going to wait and meet fellow members in DC soon, saying he can "name on one hand" the number of Congressmen and women that he has met before.

"We need someone who represents the values of those in the first district," he said. "That was our message in this race."

In the meantime, he's putting the bipartisan approach to work, as he and Sanford work in a transition plan. Cunningham says he's received calls from both Democrats like Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn and Republicans like Sen. Tim Scott, congratulating him on the unlikely victory.