LANCASTER, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District has all the usual campaign season trappings: signs dot many front yards and the airwaves are jammed with political ads. Yet the special election to fill the House seat vacated when Mick Mulvaney became White House budget director has largely unfolded without the intense partisan fever of contests elsewhere, like Georgia’s hotly disputed congressional race.
Voters on Tuesday choose between Ralph Norman, a Republican backing the Trump administration, and Archie Parnell, a Democrat who says he is best aligned to represent the district’s voters, in a district that was a Democratic stronghold more than a century until the Republican Mulvaney rode into office on a tea party wave in 2010.
While Georgia’s special election Tuesday is widely seen as an early political test for the Trump administration, the race for Mulvaney’s seat in this conservative Southern state is decidedly low key, barely registering on the national level. Despite the many signs, ads and events, even some voters are on the fringes of the race in their sprawling district, which crosses 11 counties from the state capital, Columbia, north to spillover suburbs of the banking hub of Charlotte, North Carolina.
“Honestly, we haven’t kept up with all of it,” Vicki Belk, 65, said recently over burgers and fries at Sam-Bo’s Drive-In, a fixture in the rural community of Lancaster. But the retired state employee added on behalf of herself and her husband: “Both of us will vote Republican.”
That’s good news for Norman, a former state representative and developer who lost his initial bid for the seat in 2006 to longtime Democrat John Spratt. Norman is making another go of it this year, after emerging as the race’s top Republican after a hard-fought, seven-way primary and runoff.
Parnell defeated two other Democratic contenders to win his party’s nod.
Democrats held the seat for more than a century until Spratt’s three-decade-long-run ended when Mulvaney beat him in 2010. Republicans say their recent hold on the seat — coupled with Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton here by more than 18 percent — shows a trend toward conservatism in this already deeply red state.
Norman has the backing of big-name conservatives such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who both have campaigned with him. A Washington-based conservative group, the Club for Growth, also infused Norman’s GOP runoff campaign with TV ads, and he’s run plenty of his own.
National Democratic Chairman Tom Perez has stumped with Parnell, as have a handful of congressional Democrats. But the race has drawn none of the national attention of Georgia’s contest. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has only dropped $275,000 into the race, compared to a $5 million investment in the special election in Georgia’s 6th District, which has been in GOP hands since Newt Gingrich’s 1978 victory.
That money, according to DCCC, is largely being directed toward turnout within the African-American community — about 28 percent of the district’s population, compared to more than 67 percent white.
Even in 2008, when Spratt was re-elected for the final time, the GOP ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin beat back Barack Obama and Joe Biden by a 15-percent margin here in Lancaster County. In 2016, Trump defeated Clinton by a resounding 26 percent here.
That’s not stopping Parnell’s enthusiastic attempt to recapture the seat Spratt and his predecessors had held under Democratic sway for decades.
“He’s just a normal, everyday guy,” Gil Small, 69, said of Parnell, a former Goldman Sachs tax adviser who’s also worked as a Capitol Hill lawyer. Small added that Parnell has the knowledge to implement much-needed tax reform, as well as business development.
Democrats like Small are looking for a chance to flip the seat back to blue, arguing that the slim margin that separated the top two vote-getters in a hard-fought GOP runoff show divisions within that party. Norman topped centrist state lawmaker Tommy Pope by just over 200 votes.
But the deeply divided electorate, according to one of the Republicans defeated by Norman, is boding well for conservatives.
“There’s such polarization that people are actually looking at issues, and they’re not maybe identifying with party as much,” said Chad Connelly, a former state GOP chairman who had sought the Republican nomination. “Thankfully for me as a Republican, they’re finding out that conservative policies are what they’re aligning with.”
Small, who for more than a decade chaired Lancaster County’s Democratic Party, said he worries about the shift, adding with a smile: “I want it back to the way it was 20 years ago.”
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