South Carolina GOP Race Heads to Runoff

Winner will face Democrat Archie Parnell in June special election

Republicans Tommy Pope, left, and Ralph Norman have advanced to the Republican primary runoff in the special election in South Carolina’s 5th District. (Photos courtesy Pope for Congress, Ralph Norman for Congress)

The race to fill the open seat in South Carolina’s 5th District is advancing to a primary runoff on the Republican side, with the eventual winner to face Democrat Archie Parnell in the June special election.

None of the seven Republicans earned more than 50 percent of the vote. The top two finishers in Tuesday’s GOP primary, Tommy Pope and Ralph Norman, will face each other in a May 16 runoff.

With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Pope, the state House speaker pro tempore, led Norman, a former state representative, by just 118 votes out of more than 39,000 cast. Both candidates finished with 30 percent. 

As the more establishment Republican in the race, Pope has benefited from outside spending from a super PAC called Hometown Freedom Action Network. A recent ad called him a “proven constitutional conservative.”

Norman is the major self-funder in the race, having loaned his campaign $305,000 as of mid-April. 

Former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly attracted the most support from the more conservative GOP factions. He’s the director of faith engagement for the Republican National Committee, and had received campaign contributions from House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows and the House Freedom Fund, the political arm of the caucus, within the past three weeks. He finished a distant fourth with 15 percent of the vote, behind the third-place finisher, lawyer Tom Mullikin, who took 19 percent.

On the Democratic side, Parnell, a former Goldman Sachs adviser, finished first in the three-person Democratic primary, defeating Army veteran Alexis Frank, 71 percent to 21 percent. By clearing 50 percent, Parnell avoided a primary runoff.

The 5th District seat became open when former Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a co-founder of the Freedom Caucus, became the director of the Office of Management and Budget. Before Mulvaney, Democrat John M. Spratt Jr. held the seat for 28 years. 

It’s a reliably red district that President Donald Trump carried by 19 points last fall. 

This special election hasn’t attracted anywhere near the national attention that other races in Georgia, Kansas and Montana have so far this year. But Trump actually carried the district by a smaller margin than he did Kansas’ 4th District, which proved more of a challenge for Republicans to hold than many had expected. 

While Trump carried the Kansas district by 27 points in November, Republican Ron Estes only won it by 7 points last month. If that shift in partisan performance in Kansas were applied in the South Carolina district, “We would win,” Parnell said last week.  

But Republicans argue that the Democratic base is less motivated in this district, and with the runoff in Georgia occurring on the same day, it’ll remain difficult for the South Carolina race to gain national attention.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Republican

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