Before speaking to dozens of supporters in a park in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Joe Cunningham was soaring 120 mph toward the sky.
The Slingshot amusement ride on Ocean Boulevard, which promises riders 5 G’s of force at takeoff, makes a good metaphor for Cunningham’s short but meteoric political rise in South Carolina. In 2018 his victory in the 1st Congressional District stunned national political watchers, as he became the first Democrat in nearly 40 years to represent the reliably Republican district.
He narrowly lost reelection in 2020 and earlier this month ended speculation about his political future by announcing a run for governor of South Carolina in 2022. As he enters the gubernatorial race, Cunningham faces a Herculean task not unlike the long-shot odds he encountered in his 2018 congressional bid. Republicans have accounted for six of South Carolina’s past eight governors.
Cunningham didn’t shy away from this fact when speaking to the crowd in Myrtle Beach on Saturday.
“I’ll give you a few reasons on why we can win,” he said, addressing the elephant-in-the-room question of how a Democrat can win against the odds. “Number one, I’ve done it before.”
He went on to tell the crowd that midterm elections are historically better for Democrats and gubernatorial races are “more local and less partisan.” Cunningham also touted his crossover appeal during his reelection run in 2020, when around 15,000 people voted for both Donald Trump and Cunningham, he said.
“That is a kind of crossover support you need to win in a red state,” he told the crowd.
He laid out a skeleton of his priorities, starting with expanding Medicaid and giving teachers a substantial raise. He spoke about making voting easier in South Carolina and what he called common-sense gun laws. Weeks earlier, during a press conference in downtown Charleston, Cunningham pledged to expand background checks on all gun sales and said he would support legislation that gives officials more time to review background checks, if he is elected governor.
Mike Chestnut, who has been on Myrtle Beach city council for over two decades, met with Cunningham before his speech. At Big Mike’s Soul Food, owned by Chestnut, the pair spoke about mental health, the city’s economic future and plans for the Interstate 73 highway.
“He impressed me,” Chestnut told The Sun News, saying Cunningham came to listen and see how he could help. “I was just glad to have a chance to sit down and talk to him.”
Cunningham wasn’t able to try any of Big Mike’s locally famous dishes, but Chestnut invited him back to the area to have a bigger event: “I would like for some other people to meet him and hear what he’s got to say.”