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South Carolina’s 5th District: The Forgotten Special Election

Race overshadowed by high-dollar showdown in Georgia

Archie Parnell, the Democratic nominee in South Carolina’s 5th District, greets potential voters at a Juneteenth celebration on Saturday in Rock Hill, S.C. (Simone Pathé/CQ Roll Call)
Archie Parnell, the Democratic nominee in South Carolina’s 5th District, greets potential voters at a Juneteenth celebration on Saturday in Rock Hill, S.C. (Simone Pathé/CQ Roll Call)

YORK, S.C. — Just 200 miles northeast of suburban Atlanta where local and national media are trailing Democrat Jon Ossoff, South Carolina Democrat Archie Parnell — accompanied by a sitting congressman — was passing out campaign literature at a fish fry here on Saturday with just one reporter in tow.

Parnell, the nominee in the special election for the Palmetto State’s 5th District, is doing the kind of retail politicking Ossoff gets credit for in Washington, D.C. Both candidates have made voter contact — not just by phone and mail, but by handshake — a top priority.

At a canvass launch in Chamblee, Georgia, on Sunday, Ossoff told volunteers that “the eyes of the world” are on the special election in the 6th District. But the same can’t be said for the nearby special election in South Carolina, where voters go to the polls the same day.

In fact, not even many eyes in Washington are on South Carolina’s 5th District.

“Who’s Archie Parnell?” responded Florida Rep. Lois Frankel, a member of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s leadership team, on Thursday when asked how she thought Parnell was doing in his special election.

Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, a former chairwoman of the DCCC’s Red to Blue program and a former vice chairwoman of recruitment, said she wasn’t following the race closely either.

That was a common refrain.

“I honestly have not been tracking it as closely,” Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee said last week when asked for his thoughts on South Carolina. A member of the DCCC leadership team, Kildee was fresh off the plane from Georgia, where he’d campaigned with Ossoff.

Trump country

President Donald Trump carried Georgia’s 6th District by less than 2 points, which gave Democrats hope that, despite the strong historical trends there for congressional Republicans, they could turn a special election in a suburban and well-educated district into a real race. And they have, with both sides expecting a tight finish Tuesday.

Trump carried South Carolina’s 5th District much more comfortably — but not as comfortably as he did two other districts in Kansas and Montana, where Democrats narrowed GOP congressional margins to single digits in special elections earlier this year.

South Carolina has continued to earn less attention.

That’s not to say the Democratic Party has completely ignored Parnell, who’s running against former GOP state Rep. Ralph Norman, for the seat vacated by Rep. Mick Mulvaney when he became director of the Office of Management and Budget.

A Democrat held the seat as recently as six and half years ago. (John M. Spratt Jr. represented the 5th District for 14 terms.)

DNC Chairman Tom Perez and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, an erstwhile and potential future presidential candidate, have come to the district to rally with Parnell. South Carolina Rep. James E. Clyburn, the assistant Democratic leader, has been helpful, Parnell said, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has donated to the campaign.

On Saturday, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan parachuted into the district. Former South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison, now at the DNC, had connected him with Parnell and urged him to come down.

A different feel?

Ryan, the Rust Belt congressman best known for challenging Pelosi for Democratic leader in the House last year, and Parnell, a former Goldman Sachs adviser, met in person for the first time on a sunny field for the York Masonic Lodge Fish Fry.

Their shirt sleeves rolled up and ties drooping in the oppressive humidity, Ryan and Parnell set about meeting and greeting. Then they got in their cars and did it again, and again, and again that day, mostly stopping at events, such as the Juneteenth Celebration in Rock Hill, that targeted the district’s black voters.

Ryan cast the importance of South Carolina’s special election in national terms.

“I want you to imagine Democrats win Georgia 6 and South Carolina 5,” he told a room of canvassers. “There’s no way the Senate takes up repealing Obamacare if Archie wins this race.”

But the money spent in South Carolina has been nowhere near the amount spent in Georgia.

The DCCC has invested $275,000 into the Palmetto State, mostly through the state party, to experiment with different get-out-the-vote and messaging efforts targeted at African-Americans.

The African-American base is key for any Democratic success here. Unlike Ossoff, Parnell doesn’t shy away from party labels: the blue campaign pamphlets he passed out Saturday spelled out “DEMOCRAT” in big yellow letters.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has spent about $100,000 on a coordinated TV ad with Norman. The Congressional Leadership Fund, the GOP super PAC backed by House leadership, made a late $50,000 investment in live calls targeting low-turnout GOP voters.

Democrats in the district say this election feels different from previous contests, even from last year’s when Fran Person, a onetime aide to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., challenged Mulvaney and was included on the DCCC’s Red to Blue list.

Darlene Mansfield, a 64-year-old Democrat who helped with Person’s race and is now helping Parnell, said Parnell has put more of a focus on engaging voters directly at small gatherings.

Internal polling had Parnell down 10 points in late May, which meant he had narrowed the gap with Norman by 6 points since his quirky TV ads started running in March. On screen, Parnell embraces the geeky tax lawyer he is and invokes “House of Cards,” the hit Netflix series whose fictional protagonist is a congressman from the same district.

Even Norman, who’s favored to win on Tuesday, isn’t expecting to cruise to re-election in 2018. “I expect this district will be competitive from here on out,” he said Saturday morning.

A Goldman Sachs Democrat?

So why hasn’t Parnell caught on more, nationally?

The fact that his election takes place the same day as Ossoff’s doesn’t help.

South Carolina “got squeezed out of the public consciousness,” said Zac McCrary of Anzalone Liszt Grove Research, the polling firm working for Parnell.

But for some Democrats, Parnell’s background may be one reason he hasn’t sparked the same enthusiasm.

“Part of what we’re seeing is a Democratic base that is not ready to pound the pavement for a Goldman Sachs banker,” said one Democratic operative. It’s also a big reason Parnell hasn’t been able to tap into the same liberal fundraising base that boosted Ossoff and Rob Quist in Montana, said a Democrat familiar with the race.

Others, including Ryan, disagree.

“His background has some appeal for moderate Democrats, independents, maybe even some moderate Republicans,” said the Ohio congressman, who was dispatched as Parnell’s surrogate to a candidate forum at a country club before a heavily GOP audience.

Neither candidate in Georgia wants to talk much about the president. That’s not the case in South Carolina. Parnell’s fundraising emails refer to Norman as a “Trump clone.”

Norman only had praise for Trump, who recorded a robocall over the weekend urging voters in the district to “vote Republican.” He followed up with a supportive tweet Monday. 

The GOP nominee sticks to traditional conservative talking points about the military, abortion, Second Amendment rights and term limits. He said he loves campaigning, speaking with the confidence of a man who’s been planning on running for Congress for years. Republicans expected Mulvaney would run for governor eventually; his tapping for the OMB by the Trump administration just expedited Norman’s timeline.

Norman has said he’d like to join the House Freedom Caucus, of which Mulvaney was a co-founder.

“I want to set up constituent service as Mick Mulvaney has done,” Norman told the country-club crowd.

“God gave me one mouth and two ears,” he said“I intend to listen when I get to Congress.”

Parnell criticizes Norman’s “self-interest” and lack of compassion in his policy positions, and doesn’t lose a chance to point out how many debates his GOP opponent has skipped.

Even many Republican voters said they associate Norman, a polished politician, with the country-club set. House Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope, who lost last month’s GOP primary runoff to Norman by just 200 votes, was more of the local guy — a “have-not,” as one local Democratic activist put it.

Some Democrats in the district believe Pope supporters may vote for Parnell, if only so that Pope can have another shot at running for the seat in 2018.

Learning on the trail

Assembling with a group of black voters for a “Souls to the Polls” march on Saturday, Parnell stepped out of line for a moment to run to a nearby garbage can. He’d spotted a screw in the parking lot and was afraid it would puncture someone’s tire.

Parnell is intensely pragmatic and earnest — and not at all a natural politician.

Everyone needs a coach. Parnell’s is Terrence Culbreath, a hulking African-American man who, at 34, is the youngest mayor in South Carolina.

“Did you learn anything from watching Ryan?” Culbreath chided Parnell as they were leaving the fish fry in York. The eight-term Ohio congressman had quickly removed his Ray-Bans and moved in on the crowd, gnawing on a fish sandwich while asking people how old their grandchildren were.

“He’s better than I am. But I’m learning,” Parnell said.

Voters could vote absentee this past weekend if they met certain criteria. As a woman walked out of the polling place in York, she told Parnell, “I hope you win.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Parnell said. “We will win. We will.”

“That’s a good sign,” he said after she had walked away. “I’m getting goose bumps again.” 

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