November 7, 2018 was the best day of Allie Watters’s life. A year earlier, the 2017 College of Charleston graduate had been appointed finance director for Joe Cunningham’s campaign to serve as U.S. Representative for South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District. Now, at 2 a.m. on a momentous Wednesday morning, the Associated Press called the tight race. After months of intense work, and little to no sleep in the final days, Watters heard the AP confirm Cunningham’s stunning upset victory. He had flipped a seat that had not been held by a Democrat for almost 40 years. As champagne corks popped, the elated and adrenaline-fueled staff celebrated the historic win. No one was more exhilarated that early morning than the young finance director, who had raised $2.3 million, the most ever for a 1st Congressional District race. In her inaugural outing on a major campaign, in a critical role she had not anticipated, her efforts helped cement a come-from-behind victory for Representative Cunningham. Watters said she saw the momentum shift in the hours before the election and called home. “Mom,” she said, “we’re going to win!”
The race had garnered national attention, and Rep. Cunningham’s victory sent coverage through the roof. The newcomer had narrowly defeated his opponent, flipping from red to blue a district that Republican President Donald Trump had won by 13 points just two years previously. The 1.4 percent margin of victory, or 3,509 votes out of 287,433, gave South Carolina two Democrats in Congress for the first time since 2010.
“Allie played a key role in one of the biggest political upsets during the 2018 midterms,” says Gibbs Knotts, Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor of Political Science, “when Democrat Joe Cunningham flipped a congressional seat that had been held by Republicans since the early 1980s.”
Allie Watters had discovered her affinity for politics at the College of Charleston. A native of Columbus, Indiana, her journey began at a large university, where she sat in some classes with close to 400 other students. At the time, she had a completely different career path in mind. “I planned to study interior design,” she says with amusement at the unforeseen turn her life has taken. Watters transferred to CofC and became a Communication major. Here, she found teachers who genuinely cared about their students and what each one of them needed to succeed. She appreciated the smaller classes and the personal attention she received from her professors, especially Thomas Martin, Executive-in-Residence in the Department of Communication and founder and director of the Martin Scholars Program. She was thrilled to get into his upper level strategic communication class, among mostly juniors and seniors, when she was just in her second year. His excellent feedback gave her confidence in her writing and in herself.
A fateful spring break trip in 2015, sponsored by the Communication Department and led by Professor Martin, proved to be a defining moment in her life. During their travels to New York City and Washington, DC, the group made stops at several PR firms and other businesses. In addition, they visited a political consulting firm and met with President Barack Obama’s deputy press secretary. Considering her various experiences on the trip, Watters quickly realized that she craved a career in politics.
She added a political science minor to her plate and nabbed her dream capstone assignment as a student member of the events management team for the Bully Pulpit Series. She gained valuable skills and experience in the program, led by Amanda Ruth-McSwain, Associate Professor of Communication and director of the Bully Pulpit Series. In addition, there was the excitement of acting as a stand-in during an NBC Democratic Primary Debate, planning events and interacting with nearly every Republican presidential candidate, and hosting Chelsea Clinton, daughter of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
“Allie’s star started to shine bright through the capstone experience,” says Ruth-McSwain, “She developed a confident, take-charge work style throughout her senior year, and I feel fortunate to have worked with her during those formative moments in her career. She made a big difference to the Series’ success in 2016, and she continues to make a big difference in politics.”
The Bully Pulpit Series was a launching pad for landing the job with Joe Cunningham’s campaign as its first on-the-ground staffer. Watters found that she loved finance work and fundraising, and she had a rapport with donors. When she was promoted to campaign manager, Rep. Cunningham said: “Anyone who knows Allie Watters knows she is one of the smartest, most talented people in our state. Allie played a critical role in our upset victory in 2018, and I could think of no one better to help lead the re-election campaign. She knows the district, the people, the issues and, most importantly, she has a true love for the Lowcountry, which will make her a fantastic campaign manager.”
Of course, in politics, there are difficult days as well. In the hard-fought 2020 race, Rep. Cunningham narrowly lost in an unusual election year. Watters rallied from her disappointment and fielded job offers from across the country. It has always been important to her that a candidate’s values and expectations align with her own, and this January she accepted the position of campaign manager for Aftab Pureval’s run for Mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio. There, she continues to grow and to learn new lessons.
Watters feels lucky to wake up each morning to a job she finds fulfilling and about which she is passionate, and she credits lessons learned at the College of Charleston in large measure with her success. In the future, she has her eye set on managing a statewide senatorial or gubernatorial race. “I love being a woman in power,” she says. She looks forward to seeing more women on campaign staffs and particularly in leadership roles.
Each time an exciting challenge has presented itself, Watters has put fear aside and taken a leap of faith. She often makes time in her busy schedule to speak with college students seeking her advice, and she tells each of them: “Put yourself out there, take risks, and run with the opportunities you’re given. Don’t be afraid. Just work hard, do your best, and prove yourself!”
Yet to reach her thirtieth birthday, Allie Watters has done just that.