Politics & Government

Does tight 5th District race show how S.C. Democrats can be more competitive?

On the surface, not much changed after Tuesday’s special congressional election in South Carolina’s 5th District.

Republican Ralph Norman, who campaigned on his opposition to government spending and his support for GOP President Donald Trump, won the race to succeed former U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, another fiscally conservative Republican who now is in the Trump administration.

But the results — Norman winning by a narrow 3 percentage points — were a dramatic swing from recent elections in the district, which includes part or all of Fairfield, Kershaw, Newberry and Sumter counties in the Midlands.

The 5th widely was considered Republican-friendly. Mulvaney won re-election in 2016 by 20 percentage points, and even the most favorable polling for Democrat Archie Parnell of Sumter showed him trailing by 10 points just two weeks before Tuesday’s vote.

But on election night, Parnell finished just 3 points behind Norman, leaving S.C. Democrats hopeful they can apply the lessons of his near-miss to other races.

“South Carolina is an independent state that trends Republican because we have not done as good a job running a campaign,” said Trav Robertson, chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party.

“Voters want to have substantive conversations about, ‘How can I survive without health care? How can I afford a middle-class lifestyle?’ And we have to take it to every door.”

Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University, said 5th District Democrats became complacent during the tenure of then-U.S. Rep. John Spratt. Democrat Spratt won re-election 13 times — powered by his name recognition and “amazing constituent service.” Then, in 2010, he lost to Mulvaney.

“That left (Democrats) unprepared for 2012, and then the district was redrawn to be more solidly Republican,” Huffmon said. “(Now) they see the power they have when they’re motivated and highly organized, and you need both to win.”

Huffmon thinks the 5th District could be just as competitive in 2018. So, too, the Grand Strand’s 7th District, represented by Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, whose district also has a sizable Democratic-leaning African-American population.

‘It’s hard to stay on top’

State GOP chairman Drew McKissick said the lesson of Tuesday’s special election for Republicans is that they have to stay engaged, even in an off-year election they were expecting to win.

“It’s hard to stay on top,” he said. “The lesson is, ‘Don’t get comfortable.’ ”

If McKissick were offering the Democrats advice, he said he would avoid campaigning on an anti-Trump message, which doesn’t resonate with conservative S.C. voters, he says.

“How long can they keep up this vitriol, to get millions of dollars to put into unwinnable races?” he said. “When do you say, ‘This is pretty costly for a moral victory?’ ”

That’s how McKissick sees Tuesday’s special congressional election in Georgia. There, tens of millions of dollars were spent on a race that the Democratic candidate lost by a wider margin than Democrat Parnell’s loss in South Carolina.

Some think the lack of national attention on South Carolina’s congressional race actually helped Parnell.

“It helps because then your opponents can’t say you’re getting all this money from San Francisco and New York,” said Gibbs Knotts, a College of Charleston political scientist. “It fends off the criticism that you don’t represent South Carolina values.”

Still, Democrats are hopeful Tuesday’s close result will mean the state gets a second look from national fundraisers. “The folks at the DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) will have to look for some greater investment opportunities,” Robertson said, adding additional resources always are helpful as long as outside groups don’t “broadcast” their donations.

“We lose a race when we Washington-ize it,” Robertson said.

Winning the 5th

Republican Ralph Norman won Tuesday’s 5th District congressional race in his home county — York. Norman won York by nearly 3,800 votes, providing his margin of victory — just under 3,000 votes — across the district, according to unofficial S.C. Election Commission results. In York, 37,000 ballots were cast – 43 percent of the district’s total. The next highest number of votes? Lancaster County, where 11,000 votes were cast. A look at the winner in each of the 5th’s counties:

Cherokee: Norman, 62-37

Chester: Parnell, 54-45

Fairfield: Parnell, 67-32

Kershaw: Norman, 53-47

Lancaster: Norman, 55-44

Lee: Parnell, 74-26

Newberry: Norman, 51-48

Spartanburg: Norman, 71-28

Sumter: Parnell, 60-40

Union: Norman, 50-49

York: Norman, 54-44