Politics

Should Democrats Turn to South Carolina’s Special Election Next?

Next week’s primaries could set up another competitive contest

Archie Parnell is the leading Democrat running for the seat left behind by former Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who’s now the director of the Office of Management and Budget. (Screenshot, Courtesy Archie Parnell for Congress)

Democrats enthused by last week’s primary in Georgia, and their strong showing in Kansas earlier this month, have been making noise about playing more aggressively in upcoming elections that were previously dismissed as long shots — specifically Montana.

Mentioned less often, however, is South Carolina.

“Most people don’t realize SC-05 is the most competitive election of any of the specials we’ve had so far in terms of congressional matchups,” said South Carolina Democratic strategist Tyler Jones.

By which he means that this district’s Democratic candidate for Congress last fall earned a higher percentage of the vote than Democrats in the Kansas or Georgia districts. This year’s special election in the Peach State’s 6th District got all the early attention, Jones said, because of Hillary Clinton’s narrow loss there. 

President Donald Trump carried South Carolina’s 5th District by 9 points less than he carried Kansas’ 4th District in November. 

While the Democrat still lost the Kansas special election earlier this month, the Republican winner finished 20 points worse than Trump’s margin of victory last fall. If that shift in partisan performance in Kansas were applied in the South Carolina district, “We would win,” Archie Parnell said in a Monday interview.

Parnell is the leading Democrat running for the seat left behind by former Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a co-founder of the Freedom Caucus, who’s now the director of the Office of Management and Budget. Before Mulvaney, former Democratic Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. held the seat for 28 years.   

Primary politics 

The primaries to fill the seat are next week. Unlike Georgia, where 18 candidates from all parties ran together, Democrats and Republicans will run in separate contests on May 2. And if no one receives more than 50 percent of the vote, there’ll be runoffs two weeks later. 

Out of seven Republicans, three are most often mentioned as front-runners: State House Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope, former state Rep. Ralph Norman, and former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly.

Among the three Democrats in the race, Parnell has raised the most money and has an impressive team behind him, including John Anzalone for polling and GMMB for media consulting.

“It’s not like the guy has spent 10 million bucks, but he is communicating. He’s out there, he’s a full-time candidate,” said one Democrat involved in the race. Parnell launched his first TV ad Monday, which he said is running on cable and broadcast.

“All the Democratic Party establishment types — he just waved his check — and they fell in line,” said South Carolina Democrat Phil Noble of Parnell, a former Goldman Sachs adviser. Noble questioned how much enthusiasm there is for a relatively unknown candidate on the ground.

Parnell gave his campaign $100,000 of the $243,000 he raised during the first quarter. He’s prepared to spend more of his own money on the race, but he wouldn’t say how much. “I have a number in my head, but that’s in my head,” he said. 

Democrat Alexis Frank, a 26-year-old Army veteran, raised just $44,000, and admitted to voting for Mitt Romney. But Jones, the Democratic strategist, cautioned that she’s not to be discounted. While Parnell has received the most national attention, both candidates have field operations that often go unnoticed outside the district. And even if Parnell does finish first, he still needs to clear 50 percent, not an easy feat in a three-way primary. 

Looking ahead

With Parnell’s round tortoise-shell glasses, the 66-year-old tax lawyer doesn’t present the boyish fresh-face that Georgia’s Jon Ossoff does, nor does he offer the quirkiness of Rob Quist, the Democratic nominee in Montana, who’s a musician in the Mission Mountain Wood Band.

But Parnell’s defenders say he’s not pretending to be anything he isn’t, and that might just be his biggest strength. 

He supported Clinton in last year’s presidential primary, and although he wouldn’t wade into social issues in the interview, this father of two daughters left little doubt where he stands on abortion, an issue that recently roiled the Democratic Party’s unity tour. 

“I’m running for Congress, I’m not running to be anybody’s doctor,” he said, adding that he also opposed Republican efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. 

Parnell said he’s in touch with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and that he expects to have more of the group’s support after the primary. He’d be particularly appreciative of their resources and assistance in the field, he said.

With a 28 percent African-American population, Democrats argue that the district has more of Democratic base than Kansas. Similar to Georgia’s 6th, South Carolina’s 5th District includes suburban businesspeople who commute to Charlotte. “It’s not a bunch of rednecks,” Noble said. 

Parnell knows the race will be a “steep hill,” but his campaign is looking to follow Ossoff’s model of expanding turnout. In other words, they want to turn presidential-election voters into special-election voters. 

But Georgia continues to suck up much of the national attention — and some nearby South Carolina Democratic volunteers. The general election for both seats is on June 20.  

“No one is really talking about this race, other than mentioning it quickly,” said one national Republican, pointing to Trump’s 19-point victory in the district as an explanation. 

“Of course, Kansas went for Trump by even more than that, so you never know,” the Republican added.

For Parnell, the next hurdle is winning next Tuesday’s primary, possibly a runoff, and finding out who his Republican opponent will be.

“It hasn’t caught fire like the other ones,” said one Democrat involved with Parnell’s race. “But there’s a spark there.”

Correction 12:54 p.m. | An earlier version of this story misstated the number of years Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., D-S.C., held the 5th District seat. He represented the district for 28 years.

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