June 14, 2021

A science-focused outside advocacy group that heavily invested in Joe Cunningham’s two bids for U.S. Congress will follow the Lowcountry Democrat into South Carolina’s governor’s race.

314 Action, a national political action committee, endorsed Cunningham’s bid for governor Monday. It is the group’s first endorsement of a gubernatorial challenger in the 2022 cycle, the group said in a news release provided to The State.

Cunningham faces two Democratic primary challengers — state Sen. Mia McLeod of Richland County and Democratic activist Gary Votour — while, so far, no high-profile candidate has posed a challenge to incumbent Republican Gov. Henry McMaster a year out from a primary contest.

“South Carolina deserves a leader in Columbia who will operate with facts and knowledge to help people and grow the economy, and a science-minded engineer like Joe Cunningham is the person to bring that change,” Shaughnessy Naughton, president and founder of 314 Action, said in a statement criticizing McMaster’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

McMaster has taken heat from Democrats and Republicans over his response to the pandemic, whether it was that he didn’t enforce a mask requirement or leave certain businesses to decide for themselves whether to open or close, for example.

McMaster has defended his position, telling reporters as recently as last week he had no regrets over his handling of the outbreak.

Naughton continued, “With Joe as the nominee, there is no question he will be the governor that South Carolinians deserve — because as 2020 showed us, candidates with strong science backgrounds, who listen to facts instead of misinformation, and who are committed to fighting on behalf of the people of their state are winners.”

Cunningham, a construction attorney in Charleston, narrowly lost his 2020 reelection bid to Republican Nancy Mace in South Carolina’s coastal 1st Congressional District. In past political races, Cunningham frequently called himself an ocean engineer when referring to his time working for a marine and environmental consulting firm in Florida.

A Democrat has not won statewide since Jim Rex was elected state superintendent of education in 2006, and the last time South Carolina voters sent a Democrat to the governor’s office was Jim Hodges in 1998.

Democrats will have to attract groups with serious war chests to overcome McMaster’s fundraising capabilities — a challenge Democrats overcame in 2020 when Jaime Harrison unsuccessfully challenged Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham but have struggled to do in other statewide races.

But 314 Action said it is ready to invest time and money to ensure Cunningham wins the Democratic nomination and the office.

The investment will be part of a $50 million goal to elect pro-science candidates in 2022, with starting targets in seven U.S. Senate races, 40 U.S. House races and 21 statewide races, including South Carolina’s governor’s race, 314 Action said.

314 Action poured more than $1 million into Cunningham’s unsuccessful reelection bid and helped raised nearly $30,000 in his campaign against now-Rep. Mace.

In 2018, when Cunningham stunned political observers and beat Republican nominee Katie Arrington for the seat previously held by Mark Sanford, the group spent $523,000 in ads to highlight Cunningham’s position to ban offshore drilling.

“For too long, our state has been led by governors who put politics ahead of science,” Cunningham said in a provided statement. “When it comes to tackling COVID-19, climate change, public education or affordable healthcare, I’ll be a governor who listens to the experts and makes decisions based on facts and data.”

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