Joe Cunningham (American politician)

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Joe Cunningham
Joe Cunningham, Official Porrtait, 116th Congress.jpg
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from South Carolina's 1st district
In office
January 3, 2019 – January 3, 2021
Preceded byMark Sanford
Succeeded byNancy Mace
Personal details
Joseph Kendrick Cunningham

(1982-05-26) May 26, 1982 (age 41)
Caldwell County, Kentucky, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Amanda Bonfiglio
(m. 2014; div. 2022)
RelativesBill Cunningham (father)
EducationCollege of Charleston
Florida Atlantic University (BS)
Northern Kentucky University (JD)

Joseph Kendrick Cunningham (born May 26, 1982) is an American politician, lawyer and former engineer who served as the U.S. representative for South Carolina's 1st congressional district from 2019 to 2021. The district includes much of South Carolina's share of the Atlantic Coast, from Charleston to Hilton Head Island.

A member of the Democratic Party, Cunningham narrowly defeated Republican state representative Katie Arrington in the 2018 general election. He lost his 2020 re-election bid in another close race to Republican state representative Nancy Mace after one term in Congress.

He was the Democratic nominee in the 2022 South Carolina gubernatorial election and faced incumbent Republican governor Henry McMaster in November but was defeated.[1]

Early life, education and career[edit]

Cunningham was born in Caldwell County, Kentucky, and grew up in Kuttawa, Kentucky.[2] He graduated from Lyon County High School in 2000. Cunningham attended the College of Charleston for two years before transferring to Florida Atlantic University in 2002, where he obtained his Bachelor of Science in ocean engineering in 2005.[3][4][5]

Cunningham became an ocean engineer with a consulting company in Naples, Florida, and was laid off after about five years.[3] He spent some time learning Spanish in South America,[4] enrolled in law school at Northern Kentucky University's Salmon P. Chase College of Law in 2011, and graduated in 2014.[3][5] He then worked as a construction attorney for Charleston firm Lyles & Lyles and co-owned the Soul Yoga + Wellness yoga studio with his wife before campaigning for political office.[6]

U.S. House of Representatives[edit]



In July 2017, Cunningham announced his candidacy for the United States House of Representatives in South Carolina's 1st congressional district.[4][6] Cunningham won the nomination, defeating nonprofit consultant Toby Smith, receiving 71.5% of the vote.[7][8]

Cunningham expected to face Republican incumbent Mark Sanford. However, Sanford was defeated in the Republican primary by state Representative Katie Arrington. Cunningham defeated Arrington with 50.7% of the vote, marking the first time since 1986 that South Carolina Democrats have flipped a U.S. House seat. His victory was widely considered a major upset.[9][10][11]

While Arrington carried four of the district's five counties, Cunningham prevailed by winning Charleston County by almost 17,000 votes–more than four times the overall margin of 4,000 votes.[12] Cunningham is the first Democrat to represent the Charleston-based district since 1981.[13] He was also the first white Democrat to win a House seat in the Deep South since John Barrow won reelection in 2012.[citation needed]


In 2020, Cunningham narrowly lost his seat to Republican state Representative Nancy Mace. Once a solidly Republican district, the 1st district has become competitive in recent elections due to the realignment of Charleston's suburban population to the Democratic Party. However, increased turnout in the heavily conservative Beaufort area undermined this trend, allowing Mace to overcome Cunningham's margin in Charleston County.[14]


Joe Cunningham (right) with Alabama Representative, Bradley Byrne.

In his first vote as a U.S. Representative, Cunningham declined to back Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House. Cunningham instead voted for Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois.[15] Cunningham was a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of Democrats who present themselves as moderate to conservative.[16]

On March 8, 2019, while National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration assistant administrator for fisheries Chris Oliver was testifying at a Natural Resources Water, Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittee hearing on the effects of seismic testing on right whales, Cunningham blasted an air horn to demonstrate how disruptive commercial air guns were to whales. Cunningham argued that the sound of commercial air guns was up to 16,000 times louder than an air horn.[17]

Cunningham stopped short of endorsing an impeachment inquiry against President Trump after the Ukraine allegations emerged, stating that a partisan rush to impeach the President would be bad for the country, but that if the allegations against Trump were true, they "represent a clear threat to the Constitution, our national security and the democratic process".[18][19] On October 31, 2019, however, Cunningham voted in favor of a resolution to lay out rules to proceed with an impeachment inquiry of President Trump.[20] On December 16, Cunningham announced that he would support both articles of impeachment pending in the House of Representatives, saying "At the end of day, this is simply about the rule of law, whether we're a country with laws or not and what type of precedent we want to set for future presidents."[21] On December 18, 2019, Cunningham voted for both articles of impeachment against Trump.[22]

In his farewell speech to the House of Representatives in December 2020, Cunningham toasted a can of beer to "the spirit of bipartisanship and cooperation", saying that "for the betterment of this country, we have to come together, we have to sit down and listen to each other, and maybe even have a beer."[23] GovTrack reports that during his two years in the U.S. House, Cunningham joined bipartisan bills the second most often and had the fifth least left-leaning voting record compared to other house Democrats.[24] Nancy Mace, Cunningham's Republican opponent in his 2020 reelection campaign, alleged that Cunningham voted with Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi 90% of the time.[25]

Committee assignments[edit]

Caucus memberships[edit]

Post-congressional career[edit]

2022 gubernatorial campaign[edit]

Cunningham's gubernatorial campaign logo

Cunningham was the Democratic nominee for South Carolina governor, winning the June 14 primary with 57% of the vote. Cunningham was defeated by incumbent Republican governor Henry McMaster in the November election, receiving 41% of the popular vote.[33]

Political consulting and No Labels[edit]

On March 16, 2023, Cunningham announced the launch Cunningham Consulting, a consulting firm specializing in public affairs, government relations and advocacy.[34] In May 2023, Cunningham penned an op-ed for The Post and Courier in which he expressed support for the controversial centrist political organization No Labels and their efforts to run a "unity ticket" in the 2024 U.S. presidential election; at the end of the piece, it's noted that Cunningham has joined No Labels and serves as the group's national director.[35]

Political positions[edit]

Cunningham was voted the 2019 Best Progressive by the Charleston City Paper.[36]

Cunningham supports the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).[37][38] Cunningham accepts the scientific consensus on climate change.[39] He also opposes offshore drilling, which garnered him the endorsement of coastal mayors and is attributed for his upset victory, and sponsored bills to ban offshore drilling while serving in Congress.[40][41] He does not support defunding the police.[39]

He supports legalizing marijuana and sports betting if elected governor of South Carolina.[42]

Personal life[edit]

Cunningham lives in Charleston, South Carolina, with his son Boone.[43][44] Cunningham is an Eagle Scout.[3] His father, Bill Cunningham, is a former Kentucky Supreme Court Justice and author of historical fiction.[3]

On March 20, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Cunningham announced that he had tested positive for the virus.[45] In 2021, Cunningham announced his separation from his wife Amanda.[46]

Electoral history[edit]

2018 South Carolina's 1st congressional district Democratic primary election
Party Candidate Votes %
Democratic Joe Cunningham 23,443 71.5
Democratic Toby Smith 9,342 28.5
Total votes 32,785 100.0
2018 South Carolina's 1st congressional district general election
Party Candidate Votes %
Democratic Joe Cunningham 145,455 50.6
Republican Katie Arrington 141,473 49.2
Write-in 505 0.2
Total votes 287,433 100.0
Democratic gain from Republican
2020 South Carolina's 1st congressional district general election[47]
Party Candidate Votes %
Republican Nancy Mace 216,042 50.6
Democratic Joe Cunningham (incumbent) 210,627 49.3
Write-in 442 0.1
Total votes 427,111 100.0
Republican gain from Democratic
2022 South Carolina gubernatorial Democratic primary election
Party Candidate Votes %
Democratic Joe Cunningham 102,315 56.5
Democratic Mia McLeod 56,084 31.0
Democratic Carlton Boyd 9,526 5.3
Democratic William Williams 6,746 3.7
Democratic Calvin McMillan 6,260 3.5
Total votes 180,931 100.0
South Carolina Gubernatorial Election, 2022[48]
Party Candidate Votes %
Republican Henry McMaster (incumbent) 988,501 58%
Democratic Joe Cunningham 692,691 41%
Libertarian Bruce Reeves 20,826 1%
Total votes 1,703,192 100%


  1. ^ "South Carolina Primary Results". CNNpolitics. CNN. Retrieved June 15, 2022.
  2. ^ Flairty, Steve (November 13, 2018). "Kentucky by Heart: Joe Cunningham, Chase grad, flips U.S. house seat in S. Carolina for dems". Northern Kentucky Tribune. Retrieved March 27, 2020.
  3. ^ a b c d e Nettles, Brad (August 26, 2018). "Can Joe Cunningham go to Congress? 'I've learned not to underestimate him' | Palmetto Politics". The Post and Courier. Summerville, S.C. Retrieved November 3, 2018.
  4. ^ a b c Dumain, Emma (June 21, 2017). "First Democratic challenger declares bid to unseat South Carolina Republican Mark Sanford | Palmetto Politics". The Post and Courier. Summerville, S.C. Retrieved November 3, 2018.
  5. ^ a b Biography at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Accessed 2020-12-18
  6. ^ a b Spence, Sam (June 21, 2017). "First-time candidate announces Democratic challenge to Mark Sanford by standing against Nancy Pelosi | The Battery". Charleston City Paper. Retrieved November 3, 2018.
  7. ^ "South Carolina Primary Election Results: Sanford Defeated in Republican House Primary". The New York Times. June 20, 2018. Retrieved December 8, 2018.
  8. ^ "Election Night Reporting". Retrieved December 8, 2018.
  9. ^ Caitlin Byrd; Chloe Johnson. "Joe Cunningham takes SC 1st Congressional District race over Republican Kate Arrington". The Post and Courier. Summerville, S.C. Retrieved November 7, 2018.
  10. ^ "South Carolina Election Results 2018: Live Midterm Map by County & Analysis". Politico. Retrieved December 8, 2018.
  11. ^ "South Carolina Election Results: First House District". The New York Times. Retrieved December 8, 2018.
  12. ^ South Carolina 2018 House results from CNN
  13. ^ Mark Sanford (November 13, 2018). "Opinion: A Wake-Up Call for the G.O.P." The New York Times.
  14. ^ Brussee, David Slade and Bryan. "Growing populations in Republican areas helped Nancy Mace beat Joe Cunningham for Congress". Post and Courier. Retrieved January 21, 2021.
  15. ^ Lovegrove, Jamie (January 3, 2019). "Joe Cunningham votes for Illinois Democrat Cheri Bustos for House Speaker over Pelosi". The Post and Courier. Summerville, S.C.
  16. ^ Tripp, Drew (January 29, 2019). "'Blue Dog' Democrats welcome Joe Cunningham". Charleston, S.C.: WCIV. Retrieved January 30, 2019.
  17. ^ Darryl Fears (March 8, 2019). "A Trump official said seismic air gun tests don't hurt whales. So a congressman blasted him with an air horn". The Washington Post.
  18. ^ "Ukraine scandal increases calls for Trump's impeachment, but not from SC's Cunningham". McClatchy. 2019.
  19. ^ Parlapiano, Alicia; Kao, Jason; Cochrane, Emily; Edmondson, Catie (May 31, 2019). "Complete List: Who Supports an Impeachment Inquiry Against Trump?". The New York Times. Retrieved October 13, 2019.
  20. ^ "How Democrats and Republicans Voted on Trump Impeachment Rules". The New York Times. Retrieved October 31, 2019.
  21. ^ Ferris, Sarah (December 16, 2019). "Vulnerable Democrats to vote to impeach Trump". Politico. Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  22. ^ Grace Panetta (December 18, 2019). "WHIP COUNT: Here's which members of the House voted for and against impeaching Trump". Business Insider.
  23. ^ "US congressman Joe Cunningham opens beer to toast bipartisanship". BBC News. Archived from the original on August 19, 2013. Retrieved December 17, 2020.
  24. ^ "Rep. Joe Cunningham's 2020 Report Card". GovTrack. Retrieved January 30, 2021.
  25. ^ Nancy Mace (October 27, 2020). Better Choice – via YouTube.
  26. ^ "Pelosi Announces New Appointments to Committees for the 116th Congress". Speaker Nancy Pelosi. January 24, 2019. Retrieved January 29, 2019.
  27. ^ "Pelosi Announces New Appointments to Committees for the 116th Congress". Speaker Nancy Pelosi. January 17, 2019. Retrieved January 29, 2019.
  28. ^ "Blue Dogs Welcome Reps. Ed Case, Joe Cunningham, and Kendra Horn". Blue Dog Coalition. January 29, 2019. Retrieved January 30, 2019.
  29. ^ "Members".
  30. ^ "Members | LGBT Equality Caucus".
  31. ^ "New Democrat Coalition Inducts 9 Additional Members". New Democrat Coalition. January 23, 2019. Retrieved February 3, 2019.
  32. ^ "Featured Members". Problem Solvers Caucus. Retrieved March 28, 2021.
  33. ^ "2022 Statewide General Election Election Night Reporting". Retrieved November 10, 2022.
  34. ^ Erickson, Joseph (March 16, 2023). "Former SC gubernatorial nominee Joe Cunningham launches PR firm in Charleston". WCIV-TV. Retrieved March 17, 2023.
  35. ^ Cunningham, Joe (May 12, 2023). "Cunningham: With Biden trailing Trump, we need a third option for president in 2024". The Post and Courier. Retrieved May 15, 2023.
  36. ^ "Joe Cunningham". Retrieved October 24, 2020 – via Facebook.
  37. ^ Thomas Novelly. "In SC 1st Congressional District, Cunningham and Mace differ on Affordable Care Act reform". The Post and Courier. Summerville, S.C. Retrieved September 29, 2020.
  38. ^ "Cunningham votes in favor of Patient Protection and Affordable Care Enhancement Act amid pandemic". Charleston, S.C.: WCBD-TV. June 29, 2020. Retrieved September 29, 2020.
  39. ^ a b Thomas Novelly (September 28, 2020). "Partisan hits fly as Cunningham and Mace share stage in SC congressional race debate". The Post and Courier. Summerville, S.C. Retrieved September 29, 2020.
  40. ^ Byrd, Caitlyn (July 9, 2018). "3 more coastal mayors endorsing Joe Cunningham over offshore drilling". Post and Courier.
  41. ^ Dumain, Emma (September 11, 2019). "SC's Joe Cunningham scores big win in House vote to ban offshore drilling". McClatchy DC.
  42. ^ "In His Run For South Carolina Governor, Cunningham Talks Legalizing Sports Betting". Play USA. February 25, 2022. Retrieved March 2, 2022.
  43. ^ Haas, Karen (December 13, 2018). "Unofficial List Of Members of the House of Representatives of the United States and Their Places of Residence | One Hundred Sixteenth Congress" (PDF). Clerk of the House of Representatives.
  44. ^ Harrison, Jenna-Ley. "Party lines continue to cross with Arrington, Cunningham endorsements". The Gazette. Summerville, S.C.
  45. ^ Davidson, Katie (April 1, 2020). "U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham out of quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19". Greenville, S.C.: WYFF. Retrieved November 17, 2020.
  46. ^ Folks, Will (March 23, 2021). "Joe Cunningham And His Wife Are Splitsville". FITSNews. South Carolina.
  47. ^ "2020 Statewide General Election Night Reporting - Results". South Carolina Election Commission. November 10, 2020. Retrieved November 11, 2020.
  48. ^ "2022 Statewide General Election Election Night Reporting". Retrieved November 10, 2022.

External links[edit]

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from South Carolina's 1st congressional district

Succeeded by
Party political offices
Preceded by Democratic nominee for Governor of South Carolina
Most recent
U.S. order of precedence (ceremonial)
Preceded byas Former US Representative Order of precedence of the United States
as Former US Representative
Succeeded byas Former US Representative