(CN) — The stakes are high in Tuesday’s primary election in South Carolina, as a handful of Republicans vie for the chance to take back control of the 1st Congressional District seat that Democrat Joe Cunningham snagged from the GOP two years.
Cunningham is the first Democrat to flip the seat representing the Palmetto State’s most populous district since 1981. The primary will set the stage for November’s fight for control of the House of Representatives.
Politico has called the 1st District race a toss-up, considering President Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 13 points in the district four years ago.
“It was like the old blue dog went into hibernation and then came back. It’s never going to be easy for Cunningham because District 1 is a conservative demographic, but Cunningham has done a good job in being a moderate Democrat and communicating with folks,” said Gibbs Knotts, political science professor at the College of Charleston.
South Carolina’s 1st District is one of 17 seats nationwide that Republicans will need to flip in order to take back control of the House.
“I’m sure the Republicans put up a board somewhere the next day with a strategy to take back District 1,” Knotts said of the aftermath of the 2018 election. “Cunningham ran a smart campaign focused on civility and hospitality, which people in the low country hang their hats on. Also, he stood strong against offshore drilling.”
Based on Federal Election Commission records, Cunningham has far outpaced his potential Republican competitors in fundraising. He has $3.7 million in campaign funds, $2.6 million cash on hand and has spent $1.1 million thus far.
The Republicans facing off for the chance to go up against Cunningham in November are state Representative Nancy Mace, Mount Pleasant Councilwoman Kathy Landing, Bluffton Housing Administrator Brad Mole and Chris Cox, a lobbyist and founder of Bikers for Trump.
Knotts sees Mace as the likely front-runner of the pack due to the amount of support she has garnered from the Republican Party establishment.
“She has notoriety having been the first female to graduate from The Citadel and she’s a state representative,” he said.
Mace has been endorsed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy R-Calif., and she has raised $1.3 million so far, having spent $793,000 with $560,000 cash on hand, according to the FEC.
Cunningham and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of the state’s 6th Congressional District are the only Democrats representing South Carolina in the House. All five other districts have incumbent Republicans facing challengers in November.
In the only U.S. Senate race in South Carolina this year, Democrat Jaime Harrison is the likely candidate to face off in November against Republican Lindsey Graham, who has held his seat since 2003.
While he is expected to prevail Tuesday, Graham is facing three Republican primary challengers: attorney Dewayne “Duke” Buckner, entrepreneur Michael LaPierre and ship engineer Joe Reynolds.
While hesitant to name the most formidable GOP foe for Graham, Knotts said Reynolds appears to stand out among the challengers.
He believes Graham will prevail in the primary and in November based on his popularity, despite treading the waters as a moderate Republican from a strongly conservative state. He said Graham entered the scene as a “maverick,” like the late Senator John McCain of Arizona.
“While some Republicans thought he was not as conservative as he should be, over the years he has gained a lot of party support and he has closely aligned himself with President Trump,” Knotts said.