During a televised debate on Tues. Oct. 16 between Joe Cunningham and Katie Arrington, the freshman state representative told an audience of thousands of viewers that her Democratic opponent refused to condemn a pair of blows aimed at her campaign.
It all started when Charleston Southern University professor Christi Gramling asked the U.S. House candidates how they could help mend partisanship in Congress if elected.
Arrington jumped to highlight how the divide has hurt her campaign.
"This has turned into the whisper campaign, because I didn't bring out the fact that I had breast cancer publicly," she said. "A whisper campaign went around Charleston that I was lying about it. Then — the worst thing that happened — I had nine African-American Democrats endorse me, and what came out was a picture of them being lynched with me standing there in Southern regalia."
Cunningham, a 36-year-old attorney from West Ashley, tiptoed around those claims, choosing instead to deride Arrington's "good and evil" framing of the 1st Congressional District race.
Arrington, a 47-year-old state representative from Summerville, doubled down on the two incidents in a rebuttal.
"When that came out — the picture, the meme of the people being lynched — he didn't condemn it," she added. "He didn't condemn it when the rumor went around that I was faking breast cancer."
Memes, as described by Merriam-Webster, are "amusing or interesting" items that are "spread widely online."
Despite the denotation, the "meme" in question is far from amusing. It depicts a scene outside of the White House. As a Confederate battle flag flies above them, President Donald Trump and Arrington are shown on horseback and in a dress, respectively. Meanwhile, three of her African-American supporters stand in front of what appears to be a cotton field.
Sixteen minutes into the debate, while Arrington was still onstage, her Twitter account posted about the photo to its 12,000 followers.
Joe Cunningham refused to condemn the racist meme of African Americans being lynched. He refused to condemn wife-beater Archie Parnell and to condemn the whisper campaign accusing me of lying about my breast cancer. He represents everything that's wrong with DC partisanship.— Rep. Katie Arrington (@karringtonsc) October 16, 2018
"Joe Cunningham refused to condemn the racist meme of African Americans being lynched," the tweet read. "He refused to condemn wife-beater Archie Parnell and to condemn the whisper campaign accusing me of lying about my breast cancer. He represents everything that's wrong with DC partisanship."
But is it a meme if few people actually know about it?
Democratic operatives, academics, and political bloggers say they first heard about the photo from the Arrington campaign or from right-wing bloggers decrying its contents. Rumors of the "whisper" campaign suggesting that Arrington lied about beating cancer seemed to have first appeared on conservative gossip website fitsnews.com on Oct. 10, six days before last week's debate. Coverage of the racist graphic first appears in a blog post by Kelly Golden, a conservative radio host in Charleston.
"I've not seen any of that," said College of Charleston political science professor Gibbs Knotts, who is currently writing a book about presidential primaries in the state dating back to 1980. "That seems to be something that conservatives would be quick to point out, 'You guys have done something bad and no one takes responsibility.'"
Brady Quirk-Garvan, the chair of the Charleston County Democratic Party, did not see the photo or the rumor gain significant traction in Democratic circles by the time Arrington brought it up in front of the 15,000 homes that watched the debate.
"I had to go look that up," he said. "To me, those are clearly not the driving issues that should be talked about."
Two minutes after the Arrington campaign's mid-debate tweet, Christian Senger, who runs the popular Charleston blog Holy City Sinner, questioned the reach of both claims.
"Serious question — did anyone hear about this 'lying about breast cancer thing?' Or the racist meme?" he wrote on Twitter. "I never heard them or saw them posted anywhere."
Serious question - did anyone hear about this "lying about breast cancer" thing? Or the racist meme? I never heard them or saw them posted anywhere https://t.co/sEpYt7ejlz— Holy City Sinner (@HolyCitySinner) October 16, 2018
Regardless of their popularity (or lack thereof), Charleston County Republican Party vice-chair Maurice Washington, who is depicted in the doctored image wearing a pronged collar, said the photo speaks to a larger issue for black Republicans.
"Any African Americans who wanna think differently, act differently, and not adhere to what [Democrats] consider to be acceptable behavior, then these are the kinds of treatment, or acts of intimidation, that are directed towards us," he said in an interview with the City Paper. "If anybody's on the plantation, it's those folks that conjured up this violent and silly piece."
Larry Kobrovsky, the chair of the Charleston County Republican Party, dismissed speculation that the meme was an inside job, citing his group's investigation into an incident where a local GOP precinct captain was accused of calling former President Barack Obama the n-word on Facebook. The official, Bobby Miller, resigned in February.
A screenshot sent by Kobrovsky to CP shows the image was once shared by a Facebook user with a total of eight friends. (A prominent local Democrat was tagged in the image, though Facebook users can tag most public accounts on any post.)
"The first we learned of any of this was when Katie started talking about it on the campaign trail," Cunningham said in a statement to CP. "There's absolutely no place for this in politics. We strongly condemn anyone spreading misinformation or hatefulness in this race and that's why we're running a positive campaign on the issues."
Knotts, the political science professor, says the biggest mystery is where the image originated.
"There's a lot of people that are surrogates out there," he said. "Could anyone who's out there have written something or said something? It's much easier today with the era that we're in."
He says the shadiness surrounding the photo and the rumor remind him of push polling, a practice in which people claiming to be opinion pollsters call voters in an attempt to change their views on a candidate or issue. The tactic was infamously deployed in South Carolina by the George W. Bush presidential primary campaign against late Sen. John McCain in 2000.
"I think it echoes of dirty tricks," Knotts said of the Arrington campaign's claims.
Kobrovsky considers the image an attempt to "intimidate based on race in a federal election."
The Republican chairman said he reported it to the U.S. Attorney's Office. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Charleston confirmed on Thurs. Oct. 18 that they had received the request, but could not comment further on the matter.
Michael Mule, Arrington's campaign manager, suggested Cunningham's camp could be responsible for the alleged "whisper campaign" in a statement to CP.
"If it is in fact Joe's campaign pushing this despicable lie, unfortunately I wouldn't be surprised considering who is running the campaign," he said.