Democratic Congressman Joe Cunningham stood on the steps of the U.S. Custom House in Charleston Friday where he first announced his campaign for the 1st congressional district three years ago. Only this time, he offered his support to Republican challenger Nancy Mace who claimed victory two days earlier.
His team said they wanted to wait to concede until all the ballots were counted. The congressman knows what it's like to wrap up a tight race. He's been there before. As he spoke, a divided nation anxiously awaited results in a razor thin presidential election.
"Our politics are completely toxic, and Washington is more gridlocked than any time in recent history," said Congressman Cunningham. "That's why I ran for congress in the first place, to end it."
Cunningham has had a political bullseye on his back ever since winning the 2018 midterm election.
Then, the seat once held by Republican Mark Sanford was up for grabs and it came down to Cunningham, an attorney who had never run for office, and State House Representative Katie Arrington. She had the support of President Trump. Cunningham campaigned hard on the issue of offshore drilling and got endorsements from both Republican and Democratic leaders along the coast.
The race resulted in a nail-biting finish. The morning after the elections, Arrington conceded. Cunningham became the first Democrat to serve the district in more than 40 years. Many were stunned. The win was by fewer than 4,000 votes. Republicans vowed to take back the seat.
Fast forward to 2020 and the morning after election day. Republican State House Representative Nancy Mace claims victory in front a Waffle House in Ladson where she got her first job 25 years ago. She dropped out of school at the age of 17. Her voice quivers as she talks about it.
"At that time in my life I didn't know what my future would hold."
Mace went on to become the first female to graduate from the once all male Citadel corp. of cadets. Now she's tackling another first: the first Republican woman elected to Congress from South Carolina.
"Even when you fail you can survive if you work hard," said Mace. "That's what the American dream is all about."
The congresswoman-elect says she knocked on more than 1,000 doors the final week of the race. While she and Congressman Cunningham disagree on campaigning during the pandemic as well as several key issues, Mace believes the grassroots effort made the difference.
"That's why we won," said Mace. "We went right to the voters and we talked to them directly, and talked about the issues that matter to them."
The race was close. Mace won by 1.26 percentage points, narrowly escaping a mandatory recount.
Meantime, Congressman Cunningham says he has two months left to serve and will work up to the very end. He says his door is open to constituents and the congresswoman-elect's team as they transition.
The congressman says he's still committed to being part of the solution as a private citizen. He hasn't said if he will run for political office again.