Archie Parnell, a Goldman Sachs adviser, became the first – and so far, only – Democrat to declare for the special election for South Carolina’s Fifth Congressional District. The race was called to fill the seat held by Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who resigned from Congress to take the job of OMB Director in the White House.
A series of special elections in Georgia, Kansas, Montana, and South Carolina being held over the next three months to fill vacant congressional seats are widely seen as an early test of whether or not Democrats are able to harness some of the energy of the anti-Trump protests and turn it into tangible electoral results. All were held by Republican congressmen, and all four states have been traditionally Republican in presidential elections.
South Carolina has been a difficult state for Democrats on the ballot in recent years. It is one of the reddest states in the country, and the Fifth Congressional District has been voting progressively more Republican over the past several years. Mulvaney ousted Democratic incumbent John Spratt 55-44 in the 2010 Tea Party wave election, and was reelected in each subsequent election by 11-21 points until his resignation. According to Parnell’s communications director John Kraljevic, a centrist Democrat can win the district running on a positive message about the party’s positions than on opposition or obstruction to President Donald Trump or House Speaker Paul Ryan. “It’s easier to run for the ideals of the Democratic Party and the ideals of people back home than to run against any particular individual.”
Kraljevic said that a winning map for Parnell would require the candidate to keep the margin in York County – which is predominantly Republican – close, while running up the vote margin in neighboring Chester, Fairfield and Sumter counties. Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University, agreed with that assessment, but noted that Parnell’s victory strategy would require strong turnout among Democratic voters who tend to vote less regularly in off-year or special elections. If Parnell is able to tap into an anti-Trump movement in the district, he might be able to buck this historic trend.
Another factor working against Parnell is the fact that York County, the fastest growing region in the state, is becoming more Republican because of people from Charlotte, North Carolina and the surrounding areas moving 25 minutes away across the state line because of South Carolina’s lower taxes. These transplants tend to be white, college-educated, wealthier, and Republican – with most growth in the areas of Tega Cay, Lake Wylie and Fort Mill. On top of that, the district’s Black Voting Age Population (BVAP) dropped from 29.45 percent after the 2010 census under the old district lines to 26.46 percent under the new district lines. A victory in this election by Parnell or any other Democratic candidate, though an uphill battle, would be seen as an upset.
In a statement, South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison said, “As we wait to see whether there will be a Democratic primary, today’s announcement ensures that 5th District voters will have at least one candidate with sensible ideas on how to expand opportunity for all and fulfill Congress’s constitutional role as a check against a power-hungry President.”
Candidates have until Monday, March 13 at noon to file the paperwork to enter the race. According to a state party official, if no other Democrat enters the race, Parnell becomes the Democratic nominee by default with the full support of the South Carolina Democratic Party. If one or more other Democratic candidates decide to enter the race, there will be a primary, in which the state party will remain neutral, but will get behind whoever emerges as the nominee.
In contrast, the South Carolina Republican Party has a deep bench of candidates throughout the state. Seven candidates have already declared for the Republican nomination in this race. According to Huffmon, two of them – Tommy Pope and Ralph Norman – are state legislators with strong name recognition in York County, and a third – Chad Connelly – is a former state Republican Party chairman. The primary election is scheduled for May 2, with primary runoffs scheduled for May 16 if necessary. The general election date is set for June 20.
UPDATE: A second Democrat, Alexis Frank, has entered the race, meaning there will be a primary to win the nomination.