Politics & Government

Democrats: This could be the time to flip the 5th District

Fueled by energy from 2016’s election debacle, Democratic candidates have outperformed expectations in special elections in Kansas and Georgia.

Democrats hope South Carolina’s 5th District will be next.

Three candidates — Alexis Frank of Rock Hill, Les Murphy of Indian Land and Archie Parnell of Sumter — are running for the Democratic nomination to be the district’s next congressman in a May 2 primary.

The three are seeking to succeed Republican Mick Mulvaney, the conservative Freedom Caucus member who represented the district from 2010 until he was named President Donald Trump’s budget director.

Before that, however, the 5th District — which includes Fairfield, Kershaw, Newberry and Sumter counties in the Midlands — was represented by Democrat John Spratt for almost 30 years. And S.C. Democrats are hopeful the district could turn again in their favor.

In part that is because of the results in other special congressional elections across the country, which have included some surprising results.

On April 11, the Democratic candidate for an open seat in heavily GOP Kansas came within six percentage points of a win in a district where the Republican candidate won by 31 points in November.

A week later, a Georgia district that has elected Republicans for almost 40 years gave a Democrat first place in a multi-party primary, coming up just short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.

“Wherever we go, we see more people than have attended these things before,” Parnell said of his experience on the campaign trail. At one venue, “They had no more seats. They had people standing along the walls.”

About a dozen progressive Indivisible groups and other gatherings have formed in the 5th District since the election.

Parnell attributes the energy to the “sense of unease” people have about the country’s direction. “People are worried.”

Jim Thompson, chairman of the York County Democratic Party, said the new-found interest of many residents in politics is leading to a surge of activism. About a dozen progressive Indivisible groups and similar gatherings have formed in the district since the November election, he said.

Since November, Democrats also have organized a third more precincts in York County than before and have seen a 60 percent increase in the number of people who signed up to be delegates for the state convention, Thompson said.

That shows the Democratic message is resonating, he adds. “We’re talking about health care, wages, jobs. On the Republican side, they’re talking about displaying the Confederate flag.”

Parnell had a relatively strong fundraising total in the first quarter, raising $243,032 through April 12 and finishing the quarter with $178,429 on hand. Frank raised $44,223. Murphy had no reports on file with the Federal Election Commission as of Friday.

Frank hopes to drum up enough voter enthusiasm to overcome the money gap. She notes the large majority of her donations were small, estimating the average donation was about $32.

“It’s people-powered,” she said. “I have taken no money from PACs. It’s inspiring because even though I came in late and I’m running against big money, I’ve seen my yard signs all over town, and people are coming up to me saying they’ve heard about me.”

‘It’s still uphill. But the incline of the hill is getting less steep every day.’

Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist

Murphy hopes his work as an advocate for the veterans community will translate into support on election day.

“It’s not going to be a fluke,” Murphy said. “On May 2, when you hear the name Les Murphy, you’re not going to think of ‘Murphy’s Law.’ ”

With Democrats nationally hoping to retake the House, the winner of the May 2 Democratic primary also may get financial support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee before June’s special election against the winnner of the GOP primary.

Jesse Ferguson, a strategist and former deputy director for the committee, says it be an uphill climb for a Democrat to win the 5th District. “But the incline of the hill is getting less steep every day.”

“This could well be a sleeper in a district where we know a majority of the voters are comfortable voting for a Democrat,” Ferguson said. “The history of the district, the DNA of the district shows that they will vote for a Democrat. The question is: Can they make this happen this time?”

Donovan Harrell in the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed. Bristow Marchant: 803-771-8405, @BristowatHome, @BuzzAtTheState

BY THE NUMBERS

5th District vote for president

57.3 Percentage of the vote that Donald Trump took in the 5th District

38.8 Percentage of the vote that Hillary Clinton took in the 5th District

5th District vote for Congress 2016

59.1 Percentage of vote that Republican U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney took in the 5th District

38.8 Percentage of the vote that Democrat Fran Person took in the 5th District

5th District vote for Congress 2010

55.1 Percentage of the vote that Mick Mulvaney took in the 5th District

44.8 Percentage of the vote that Democratic U.S. Rep. John Spratt took in the 5th District

Source: S.C. Election Commission, Daily Kos Elections

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