It was a sleepy session of the House Natural Resources’ subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife earlier this month, when Rep. Joe Cunningham took out an airhorn.
Cunningham and his colleagues had been listening to Chris Oliver, a top official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, make the case for offshore drilling—an issue of great importance for the freshman congressman’s coastal South Carolina district.
So when it came time for him to speak, Cunningham first warned his colleagues, then blasted it. It was loud.
“Was that disruptive, Mr. Oliver?” asked Cunningham, a hint of a grin on his face.
Did Mr. Oliver know, the congressman asked, how much louder seismic blasting is for whales and other sea mammals than the airhorn he just blasted? “Sixteen thousand times louder,” said Cunningham.
The moment, which quickly made the rounds on TV and was widely shared online, was the first time that most people had ever heard of the 36-year old attorney from Charleston, South Carolina.
Cunningham is something like the anti-AOC in the Democratic Party: He’s a white male Southerner from a deep red district. He’s also a reason why Democrats now have the House majority, and keeping his job means reaching across the aisle and away from the left wing of the caucus.
In November, Cunningham pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the midterms, defeating the Republican candidate, Katie Arrington, by fewer than 4,000 votes in a district the president won by 13 points. He spent the race as a long shot against Arrington, who successfully primaried then-Rep. Mark Sanford for being insufficiently pro-Trump.
“When we first got up here, folks were looking at us,” Cunningham recalled in an interview with The Daily Beast. “Democrat? South Carolina? How the hell did you get up here?” In a nine-member state delegation that includes some of Trump’s biggest cheerleaders, Cunningham is one of two Democrats. The other, Rep. Jim Clyburn, is No. 3 in House Democratic leadership.
It’s not only Cunningham’s “(D-SC)” designation that makes him look out of place. In this 63-member Democratic freshman class, which is defined by avowed lefties like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cunningham is a centrist who occasionally sides with Republicans on key votes and aims to work with them whenever possible. “Thousands of Republicans voted for us,” he said in describing his upset election win. “I’m honored, and we won’t ever forget that either.”
His Republican rivals, however, would like to make Cunningham a one-term fluke for this otherwise red district. The GOP’s official House campaign arm is already warming up its attacks on Cunningham, working to persuade South Carolina voters he is indistinguishable from Ocasio-Cortez and the other upstart progressives of the Democratic caucus.
During the government shutdown, for example, Cunningham voted with the entire Democratic conference—plus six Republicans—to pass a $12 billion bill containing disaster relief money that was barred from going toward construction of a border wall. In response, the National Republican Campaign Committee slammed him for “[falling] in with his radical Democrat colleagues and their obsession with open borders.”
The NRCC declined to say if Cunningham was their top 2020 target, but it’s clear they consider him particularly vulnerable. “We look forward to Joe Cunningham trying to sell his party’s socialist agenda in a district President Trump carried by 13 points,” said an NRCC spokesperson. “He’s toast.”
On his way to the House floor on a recent Friday—he still gets a little lost on the way there, just two months into the job—Cunningham dismissed the emerging strategy to pin him to his most left-wing colleagues. But he admitted that when he goes home to the Lowcountry, he hears a lot from his constituents about them.
“I think the media has an infatuation with these two, three, four members of Congress. I tell people back home, there are so many dynamic members in our class,” said Cunningham, reeling off a list of moderate Democrats who won tough races in 2018. “They don’t get the attention because the news media on both sides is solely focused on these select few members.”
Rep. Dean Phillips, a fellow freshman who flipped a historically Republican seat in the suburbs of Minneapolis, is one of the “dynamic” freshmen Cunningham mentioned. He told The Daily Beast that the party needs more like his friend from South Carolina.
“Joe’s not somebody who craves attention and needs the spotlight,” Phillips said. “He’s doing the work the old-fashioned way. He’s a workhorse.”
Cunningham, who has been described as an “aw-shucks attorney” and a “dad bro,” has also tried to make friends in D.C. the old-fashioned way, with mixed results. Days after he was sworn into office, he was stopped from taking a six-pack of South Carolina craft beer on the House floor, since alcohol in the chamber is against the rules. He intended to gift the beer to Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), the chair of the Congressional Small Brewers Caucus, in hopes of joining the group.
Phillips said that Cunningham convenes fellow freshmen for drinks after long days at work, and calls him “literally and figuratively” the kind of person you’d want to have a beer with.
Not all of Cunningham’s new colleagues appreciate his approach, however affable. He’s drawn scrutiny for being among a small group of Democrats who have voted with Republicans multiple times on procedural motions that have caused headaches for the party.
In February, the House GOP advanced a procedural maneuver on Democrats’ firearms background check bill, which aimed to weakened gun control restrictions for women. Cunningham and 25 other Democrats voted with Republicans to approve it, embarrassing Democratic leadership.
Earlier that month, Republicans used the same maneuver to troll Democrats on immigration, moving to add to their sweeping democracy legislation a line “recognizing that allowing illegal immigrants the right to vote devalues and diminishes the voting power of American citizens.” The motion failed, but Cunningham was one of six Democrats who voted in favor.
The congressman says he’s taken plenty of heat for those votes. “People yell at you all the time,” he said. In a closed-door Democratic caucus meeting aimed at snapping members into line on the motions, Ocasio-Cortez reportedly suggested that Democrats like Cunningham be put on a list when they vote with the GOP; she promised to alert progressive activists when they did.
Cunningham wasn’t fazed. “It doesn’t carry a lot of weight when someone comes to me, a Democrat in a D+20 seat, and tries to tell me how to vote on issues related to immigration, gun safety, or anything else that I feel like. I know my district, they don’t,” he said.
While his more liberal colleagues make a point of hosting activists for meetings in D.C., on a recent weekday Cunningham had the Republican mayor of Folly Beach, a small seaside town south of Charleston, for a brief, friendly meeting in his Capitol Hill office. Most of the local officials Cunningham works with back home are Republicans—as are most of his constituents—and he is banking on cultivating an image as a champion for them ahead of what will be a difficult 2020 campaign.
His centrist views haven’t scared away Democratic presidential contenders, who, despite their progressive platforms, are keeping Cunningham’s phone buzzing. But he said he’s in no hurry to make an endorsement for South Carolina’s important early presidential primary.
True to form, he views the situation as an opportunity to talk up the district’s issues and amplify the voices of moderate Democrats. Asked if he was drawn to candidates like Beto O’Rourke or Joe Biden, Cunningham gave a characteristic response: they have “star power,” he says, but he wants to see who puts in the work in South Carolina.
Ultimately, Cunningham says, the party’s big-tent diversity—apparent on Capitol Hill and in that burgeoning 2020 primary field—is less a liability than it is a strength. “Some people get sidetracked by alleged splinters in the party,” he said.
Besides, he shares lots of policy goals with his more left-wing colleagues. “For the far left, I’m not the Democrat they want,” Cunningham says. “But I’m probably the Democrat they need.”