Candidate Joe Cunningham (campaign photo)
Candidate Joe Cunningham (campaign photo)

“Kentucky’s going to have an extra congressman,” beamed proud papa Bill Cunningham.

The Bluegrass State Supreme Court justice was also a tad wistful about his son Joe’s upset victory in South Carolina’s First Congressional District election.

“Joe now belongs to the country,” his dad said. “We lost a little part of him.”

But Bill and Paula, Joe’s mom, are glad to share their youngest offspring with the nation. A moderate Democrat, he edged hard-right Republican Katie Arrington by 3,509 ballots, according to the Charleston Post and Courier. The paper called the election “a rebuke for both President Donald Trump and Republicans who had held the seat since the Reagan era.”

Joe was the clear underdog. Like most of South Carolina, the First District is Republican ruby-red.

Not surprisingly, Tuesday night was a nail-biter for Joe and his folks.

“It looked in the late evening like we’d lost,” Bill said. “Then, these kids that ran his campaign, boy, they’re smart; they were working those computers and they knew that it wasn’t over until it was over.

“Joe lapped ’em the last time around.”

The race wasn’t decided until 2 a.m. Wednesday, way past Bill and Paula’s bedtime.

The couple lives in Kuttawa in Lyon County near Lake Barkley. They headed to Charleston to be with Joe for the vote tally.

Arrington tied herself tightly to the president. “The last three days [of the campaign], President Trump did robo calls against Joe with all these scare tactics and his opponent ran all these scare tactics,” said Cunningham, who was elected to the Bluegrass State’s highest court in 2006 and commutes to his office in Frankfort.

“Joe swam against the current. He swam against being in a Republican district. He swam against the president.”

Back in the 1980s, Justice Cunningham briefly considered bucking a strong tide himself. Some First District Democrats encouraged him to primary Rep. Carroll Hubbard of Mayfield.

Bill said Joe’s win doesn’t make him sorry he didn’t go after Hubbard. “Absolutely not. If anything, it makes my decision look better because I spent that time raising Joe.”

Bill and Paula didn’t hit the hay until 4 a.m. Wednesday. “I’m trying to do some Supreme Court work today, but there’s no telling what kind of opinions that will come out of my office,” the justice said with a chuckle.

Bill doesn’t mind that Joe’s win might upset the Cunningham family Thanksgiving plans. The couple reared five sons.

“Thanksgiving is our big homecoming,” Bill said. “Joe, Amanda [Joe’s wife] and Boone [their baby son] are supposed to be here but that all may change. He can’t just drop everything now. We’ll have to start planning around his schedule.”

Joe, an Eagle Scout and Lyon County High School grad, is an ocean engineer turned attorney. His lives and practices law in Charleston, the heart of the district that sprawls along the Atlantic seaboard.

Bill said that after Joe graduated from Northern Kentucky University’s Chase law school, he considered staying and seeking office in his native state.

But Joe opted for Charleston. “I told him, Joe, you can be governor of South Carolina just as easily as you can be governor of Kentucky,” Bill said.

When Joe moved to Charleston, two of his four brothers lived in South Carolina’s largest city. Alec is still in town though Luke has since moved to Franklin, Tenn.

Alec volunteered in his little brother’s campaign, inviting comparisons to President John F. Kennedy and his younger sibling, Attorney Gen. Robert Kennedy. “I guess it has kind of a southern Kennedy flair to it,” Bill said.

Joe Cunningham, 36, has also been likened to Texas Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke, 46, who came up short in his bid to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.

Before Joe won, Congressman James Clyburn of Columbia was the only Democrat in the Palmetto State’s nine-member delegation in Washington.

Bill and Paula plan to head home to western Kentucky Friday. Then it’s off to Frankfort for the justice.

The Cunninghams hope to be in Washington in January to witness their son take the oath of office.

Bill also advised that though Joe is a Carolinian, his Kentucky roots sometimes show when he fires up a crowd. The jurist cited a Cunningham-for-Congress fund raiser.

“Charleston is a very sophisticated old southern city,” Bill said. “There were wealthy people, very impressive, very good people. But when Joe started his speech, I could see Kentucky all over him.”

The Cunninghams are Southern Baptists.

“Joe’s speech had that mix between a Southern Baptist preacher walking the aisle and a lawyer giving a closing argument to the jury.

“It’s old-fashioned and a little bit different down here. But people like it.”

They must. Joe Cunningham’s brand-new handle is “Congressman-elect.”


Berry Craig
Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community College in Paducah and an author of five books on the Civil War in Kentucky. The last one, published by the University Press of Kentucky, is Kentucky’s Rebel Press: Pro-Confederate Media in the Civil War. His critically-acclaimed Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase, also from the University Press, has been reprinted in paperback.