As SC Democrat joins primary, the race to beat Mark Sanford heats up

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

A South Carolina Democrat has become the first black woman to run for Congress in the state’s 1st District — and that’s not the only barrier she hopes to break.

Toby Smith, a nonprofit consultant in the Charleston area, announced last week that she will run for the U.S. House of Representatives in South Carolina’s 1st District.

Smith, who previously made waves on the South Carolina political scene when she was the first black woman to run for mayor of Charleston in 2015, has forced a Democratic primary for the seat against Joe Cunningham.

Both are vying to replace U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, a former Republican governor who has held the 1st District seat since 2013.

According to her campaign website, Smith began her government experience at the federal level with the Central Intelligence Agency, where she worked for eight years. In 1995, she moved to Charleston, where she worked for the Charleston School District and then as a grant writer for local nonprofits.

“Getting involved in the nonprofit world really changed my life,” Smith told the Post and Courier when she ran for mayor in 2015. “I learned so much by helping other organizations write their IRS applications, develop programs, devise budgets, find resources, write grants and select personnel.”

Although Smith was unsuccessful and eventually lost to current mayor John Tecklenburg, she is coming into her race for Congress with a new energy.

“Let me be clear: I’m a protest candidate,” Smith said on her website. “I’m protesting the upsurge of racism. I’m protesting the sexism. I’m protesting that the America I know is becoming something very different.”

It’s unclear whether Smith is referring to the cultural causes and effects of Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidency, or to Sanford, who also has a torrid public history with women.

Sanford was involved in a 2009 extramarital affair that received national attention. While in office, he traveled to Argentina to spend time with his mistress, but lied and said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Sanford publicly admitted his indiscretion and resigned as governor. He was elected to Congress in 2013.

Sanford is up for reelection in 2018, and has shown no signs of hiding his affair or his political reputation from the national spotlight.

But before Smith faces Sanford in the national election, she faces a Democratic opponent, Cunningham, in the June primary. Cunningham, a Charleston lawyer, has been running since June and until Monday was the only Democrat running for the seat.

Cunningham has made direct attacks on Sanford, whom he thought would be his eventual opponent for the district. During a public speech, Cunningham brought cardboard cutouts of Sanford to ridicule, and he’s said he aims to “repeal and replace Mark Sanford.”

The cardboard cutouts were an allusion to a stunt of Sanford’s in which he tried to debate a cardboard cutout of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. 

It will be challenging for any Democratic opponent to defeat Sanford, a man who has never lost an election in his political career. While many Democrats will be hoping for anti-Trump backlash to turn red seats blue in 2018, dislike for Trump may not sway voters in the 1st District.

In the 2016 election, Trump won South Carolina by 14 points. But he lost handily in heavily populated urban centers, like the Charleston area located in the 1st District. And Sanford has been open about his disrespect for President Trump.

Since Cunningham began campaigning, he has tried to associate Sanford and Trump, calling Sanford “complicit.”

“Talk is cheap,” Cunningham told the Post and Courier. “He might go out and say something, but you look at his record, he votes with [Trump] 90 percent of the time. When [Trump] was looking for additional votes for health care, it’s Sanford who he went to, and Sanford who answered the call.”

According to FiveThirtyEight, only five Republicans in the House have voted against the president more times than Mark Sanford — but Sanford has voted with Trump 73.9 percent of the time.

Cunningham has made bold efforts to make a name for himself in the district, but he will have to face off against Smith, who seems to be employing a similar strategy.

Joining the record-breaking numbers of women running for public office, Smith is the first black woman to run to represent the 1st District. Smith believes that she can bring a unique perspective to the office that her male opponents lack.

“Let me warn you in advance, I’m playing the woman card,” Smith says on her campaign website. “Anything that bothers my sisters anywhere is on my list too; things like making less than a male counterpart…. And, not having enough diverse voices in the statehouse, Congress and White House are on my list as well.”

Last Saturday, Smith spoke at the Charleston County Democratic Convention, where she talked about being proud to be a woman running in 2018.

“No party will be successful if it demeans, denies or denigrates the power of women,” Smith said. “Our voices matter. Our opinions matter. Our perspective matter. How we do things matter, and we’re different and that’s good.”