Democrat Archie Parnell is running for Congress in Trump Country, a South Carolina district so red that pundits say the only question in Tuesday’s special election is the Republican margin of victory.
But Parnell doesn’t buy it.
“We’re going to surprise a lot of people,” says the soft-spoken lawyer from Sumter.
Parnell, 66, faces Rock Hill developer Ralph Norman, 63, and a handful of third-party candidates in a special election to succeed former GOP Rep. Mick Mulvaney, President Donald Trump’s budget director.
They’re running in South Carolina’s 5th District, which was represented for a generation by Democrat John Spratt of York. But redistricting and demographics have transformed it since Spratt lost to Mulvaney in 2010. Heavily Republican York County, fueled by development in the Charlotte suburbs, has grown by more than a third.
That’s why the race has drawn less attention than special elections in Kansas, Montana and Georgia, which have been seen as tests of Trump’s popularity and the intensity of Democratic resistance.
In Georgia’s 6th District, based in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff has raised nearly $24 million for Tuesday’s election and his GOP opponent, Karen Handel, almost $5 million. Outside groups have poured more than $27 million.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is spending $6 million in the Georgia special election. By contrast, it’s investing just $275,000 in the S.C. race. Its Republican counterpart has spent $92,000 to help Norman, compared with nearly $6 million on the Georgia race.
The reason for the disparity?
Trump carried the Georgia district by 1.5 percentage points over Democrat Hillary Clinton. He carried the 5th District by 18 points. Mulvaney won by 20.
“I do expect the Democrats to do better than expected, but you have to remember ‘expected’ is 20 points,” says Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political scientist.
An internal poll for Parnell last month showed him trailing by 10 percentage points. He said the same poll showed an even closer margin among “informed voters.” And those are the ones he’s counting on.
“We think in a special election you will have a preponderance of informed voters,” he says.
If elected, Parnell says he would be like Spratt, a moderate Democrat who represented the district for 28 years. He defeated Norman in 2006.
“I’ll work with President Trump if I think he’s right,” Parnell says in a campaign video. “But I will fight him tooth and nail if what he’s doing hurts the folks back home.”
Since Spratt’s defeat in 2010, the 5th District was changed to accommodate the new 7th District.
Many Democratic voters were lost as the black voting age population fell from 31 percent to 27 percent. David Wasserman, an analyst with the Washington-based Cook Political Report, said that’s significant with Norman showing a 10-point lead in the internal poll.
“A 10-point race here is different than a 10-point race anywhere else because there are fewer true swing voters,” Wasserman says. “It has to do with the racial polarization of the electorate in South Carolina.”
Norman, a former state representative, is a conservative in the mold of Mulvaney. U.S. Sen Ted Cruz of Texas campaigned for him in the primary. Endorsements came from former Gov. Nikki Haley and former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina. The Conservative Club for Growth spent $865,000 on his behalf, helping him beat more centrist Republican Tommy Pope in a heated runoff.
Norman has said he’d consider joining the conservative Freedom Caucus if elected. And he embraces the president, just as he did speaking to farmers in rural Chester County.
“I’ve been cast as somebody being far right,” he told them. “I do what makes sense. I’m not a far-right ideologue … I think whether it’s immigration (or) security issues, we’re going to come to a solution. And Trump is the man to do it.”
Norman told the Observer the president “has done a great job.”
“He’s done everything he promised and more,” he says. “I want to be part of his success.”
He calls Parnell “a left-wing Obama-Sanders surrogate.” Voters, he says, have “a stark choice.”
On that, Parnell agrees.
“The difference between Ralph Norman and myself is very, very stark,” he said, “just like the commercials.”
One Parnell TV ad spoofed the Netflix political drama House of Cards. Others used self-deprecating humor to introduce the candidate making his first bid for office.
“I am not a sensational athlete,” he says in one. “I don’t have movie-star good looks. And I’m no politician. But I know enough about our crazy tax code to absolutely bore you to tears.” To which his wife Sarah deadpans: “You have no idea.”
Parnell is a tax attorney who went to the U.S. Justice Department and staffed a U.S. House committee after graduating from the University of South Carolina. Then he spent years in Hong Kong and other places overseas working for Exxon Mobil and later Goldman Sachs.
Parnell has criticized Norman’s support for the Republican health care bill and past support for partial privatization of Social Security. He’s also criticized his 2016 legislative vote against giving $40 million in state recovery aid to farmers affected by flooding.
On Thursday Parnell blasted Norman’s decision to not participate in a debate sponsored by the S.C. Farm Bureau, the second forum canceled for the same reason.
Norman has criticized Parnell’s voting record, or lack of it.
The (Columbia) State reported that the S.C. elections office has no record of Parnell ever voting in South Carolina until last month’s Democratic primary. Parnell said because he was out of the country for years he voted absentee from Texas, where he once lived. “The notion that I’ve not voted except once is nonsense,” he said.
Norman has raised $1.2 million, including a $495,000 loan. Parnell has raised $763,000. He loaned his campaign $205,000.
Parnell is banking on turning out energized Democratic voters and peeling off moderate Republicans. Huffmon, the political scientist, says that could work – to a point.
“The only way Trump is hurting Ralph Norman right now is the way he’s energizing Parnell voters,” Huffmon says. “But he’s not turning off core (Republican) voters.”