Joe Cunningham the day after defeating Katie Arrington for SC Congress seat
Jeff Doom remembers the volleyball matches in his P.E. class were, well, slightly competitive.
“They were out for blood,” chuckled Doom, who has taught at Kentucky’s Lyon County High School for 28 years.
Doom liked to take the court with his students, and one of them — Joe Cunningham — had a nasty spike.
“He’s left ‘Spalding’ across my forehead several times,” Doom laughed, referring to the brand of volley ball used in his classes.
The story was one of a handful of stories “Coach Doom” — as Cunningham calls him — shared Thursday, when he told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette he wasn’t surprised by his former student’s upset victory in Tuesday’s congressional race.
Cunningham, by all accounts a moderate Democrat, eked out a narrow win over Republican Katie Arrington — who enjoyed the backing of President Donald Trump — to claim a seat in Congress, representing South Carolina’s coastal 1st District.
Beaufort County lies within the district that’s been a GOP stronghold for almost four decades; a Democrat last held the seat in 1980.
With his win, Cunningham becomes a S.C. rarity. He’s now one of just two Democrats — District 6’s James Clyburn being the other — in Congress representing South Carolina, a red state whose other seven delegates are Republicans.
And while seasoned politicians, including current District 1 Rep. Mark Sanford, say a cocktail of political variables might explain Cunningham’s rise, those who knew the 36-year-old, Charleston-by-way-of-Kentucky attorney before the race point to his personal qualities, rooted in affability and competitiveness.
The ‘milk machine’
Cunningham had pulled off the road for some gas about 3 p.m. Thursday somewhere between Charleston and Columbia.
“I still have to practice law, you know, do my day job,” he said, chuckling, “until I go to work in Congress.”
He’d been fielding calls throughout the day, some from reporters, and he only had a few minutes to talk. Still, he sounded relaxed, and he laughed when asked about those volleyball games in Doom’s P.E. class.
“Well, I was a lot more competitive on the basketball court, I assure you,” Cunningham said.
A 2000 Lyon County graduate, he was a power forward and captain of the school’s team, according to Post & Courier, and Doom remembers a kid who would dive on the hardwood for a loose ball.
“He’d slap his teammates (on the bench) a five on the way back down the floor (after making a layup),” Doom said.
He’d make sure the crowd was pumped up.
Lyon County is in western Kentucky, about 2.5 hours northwest of Nashville, Tenn. It’s rural, with a population of around 8,000, according to U.S. Census data, home to part of a sprawling U.S. Forest Service recreation area.
And it’s where Cunningham grew up — with a “milk machine” in his house.
It was always a notable occasion to get a glass from the machine, Doom said, adding that a teenaged Cunningham and his four older brothers could, like a lot of growing boys, drink a lot of the cold stuff.
Cunningham laughed when asked about it.
“My dad bought it from an old restaurant that was going out of business,” he said. “And he’d buy five-gallon bags of milk, because it was so expensive for him to buy it by the jug, and so they had a milk machine in the back of the sewing room.”
“And I remember that, at Christmastime, for a treat, he’d order a bag of chocolate milk and put it on one side,” Cunningham said. “And that was the best — one of the best parts — about the Christmas season ...”
He’s the son of Bill Cunningham, a long-time judge elected in November 2006 to his current post as a justice on the Kentucky Supreme Court.
Whether it was volleyball, basketball or weightlifting, Cunningham always pushed himself hard, Doom said.
“If a kid was down, he’d put his arm around him,” Doom said, calling Cunningham “a great entertainer,” saying “he liked for people to have a good time.”
After high school, Cunningham moved to Charleston for college but later transferred to Florida Atlantic University, where he got a degree in ocean engineering.
He studied “spar buoys” — long, slender devices known for their stability in small waves — for his “capstone design project,” professor Manhar Dhanak, then the program’s department chair, told the newspapers Friday.
“In some ways I’m not surprised,” said Dhanak, who now directs FAU’s SeaTech program. “Because the program that we have, although the students train as ocean engineers, they often take leadership positions in other areas.”
After he finished law school in Kentucky, Cunningham thought about seeking office in his home state but decided to return to Charleston, according to Forward Kentucky, a progressive publication covering politics in the Bluegrass State.
His father said, according to that publication: “I told him, Joe, you can be governor of South Carolina just as easily as you can be governor of Kentucky.”
In late June 2017, then-candidate Cunningham made headlines when he tweeted, boldly, “If elected, I will not vote for Nancy Pelosi for speaker. Time to move forward and win again.”
On Thursday, when he’d stopped for gas, Cunningham said he still stood by that stance.
Pelosi, the California Democrat who currently is House minority leader, called him “a couple of days ago and wanted to say congrats,” Cunningham said.
“(S)he reached out along with a handful of other representatives and senators and everyone else — I’m still going through the texts and the messages now.”
The Democrats regained control of the House during the midterms, and Cunningham’s victory was a surprise piece of the win.
Sanford, soon to vacate the seat, said the outcome was due partly to “Democratic steam” in the midterms. But it was also a response to President Donald Trump’s leadership style and demeanor, Sanford added, and the result of Cunningham’s campaign against offshore drilling.
Offshore drilling became “a proxy issue” that was really about quality of life — the Lowcountry maintaining its look and feel, Sanford said.
During the race, he said, Cunningham embodied that Lowcountry feel: relaxed, casual, outdoorsy.
But Cunningham also ran a hip campaign, one a 30-something voter could relate to through Instagram, or during meet-and-greets at Charleston-area breweries.
He promoted his image as a new father. TV commercials featured new son Boone, whose name has its roots in Kentucky and North Carolina, where Cunningham’s mother, Paula, hails from.
Much has been written about his wife, Amanda, a web designer who doubles as a yoga studio owner and instructor. (Cunningham said he’d tried yoga but prefers basketball or running. “It’s hard for me to slow things down enough,” he said, explaining his “lifestyle, right now, is just constantly going and thinking about the next thing.”)
But Sanford also noted Cunningham’s style clashed with his opponent’s.
“I think, in the world of hyper-partisanship and great political polarization, ‘warm,’ ‘pleasant’ and, to some degree, ‘kind’ goes a long way and is certainly in contrast to today’s political environment,” Sanford said.
In the weeks ahead, Cunningham soon will find himself a new race, according to Sanford — the scramble for committee assignments in Congress.
“(It’s) the most amazing onslaught of people and pressing interests he’s ever faced in his life,” Sanford said.
“The first month is fairly daunting,” he continued.
“Everybody’s strutting their stuff.”
More about Joe
Hometown: Kuttawa, Ky.
Current town: West Ashley, Charleston
Family: Amanda (wife) and Boone (son)
Occupation: attorney (previously, ocean engineer)
Education: B.S. in ocean engineering, Florida Atlantic University; J.D., Salmon P. Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University
Money raised for campaign: $1,926,220.81, according to the Federal Election Commission