Lessons from South Carolina's overlooked special election

Democratic candidate Archie Parnell canvasses for votes in South Carolina's 5th Congressional District prior to the June 20 special election. (Photo used with permission via Amy Hayes on Twitter.)

Democrat Archie Parnell wasn't supposed to have a chance of winning the special election in South Carolina's 5th Congressional District last week. Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney, a Tea Party conservative who took the seat from a Democrat in 2010, won it by 20 points just seven months ago, and most pundits and pollsters predicted that Parnell would lose the race by anywhere between 10 and 20 percent. Instead, he came within 3.2 percent, or just 2,836 votes, of winning.

A 66-year-old white tax lawyer and former Goldman Sachs employee who ran on a centrist platform, Parnell was able to galvanize enthusiasm from a diverse coalition of supporters. Besides long-time Democratic Party activists, Parnell's campaign volunteers also included members of the local NAACP and activists from local chapters of national Trump resistance groups like Indivisible and the Women's March.

This coalition-building was necessary in the district, which is 27.9 percent Black and has a median household income of $41,942, about 12 percent lower than the state as a whole. It also has a significant rural white population and a relatively recent white suburban population that is spilling into the district from Charlotte, North Carolina — a financial center about an hour away. It includes one so-called "pivot county" that went for Donald Trump after voting for Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012, illustrating the district's conservative shift.

In order to defeat his opponent, the extremely conservative Republican state legislator Ralph Norman, the campaign believed that Parnell would have to reach across partisan and ideological lines to appeal to conservative voters.

"He had to be the right combo of someone who can speak to Christian values of helping people, and then also have some conservative cultural tags, and then also have some financial tags as well, because we're very close to a banking center," said Amy Hayes, a former chair of the York County Democratic Party who helped recruit Parnell and volunteered for his campaign.

The social safety net was an important issue in the race. Norman said publicly that he would have voted for the American Health Care Act (AHCA) — the deeply unpopular House-approved Obamacare repeal bill that the Center for American Progress found would cause at least 62,000 of the district's non-elderly residents to lose health insurance. Norman also expressed support for raising the Social Security eligibility age, reducing benefits, and even privatizing the program. Parnell, on the other hand, championed closing corporate tax loopholes and fixing Obamacare rather than repealing it. This became a crucial talking point for Parnell canvassers, especially those in poorer and more rural areas of the district.

"I have a friend who thought he was a Republican, and he voted for Archie," said Anne Landires, the head of the Indivisible chapter in Chester County and a Parnell canvasser. "The reason I was able to get through to him is that I explained to him — think about your mom and dad, they're both on Social Security, think about your brother who's disabled."

Although neither openly endorsed him, both the Rock Hill and the Western York County NAACP chapters hosted Parnell at events and shared multiple posts and photographs directly from his official campaign accounts. The president of the Western York County chapter, Steve Love, introduced Parnell at his candidacy announcement.

"My first thing to him was, 'Why don't you get some powerful white guy [to introduce you]?'" said Love. "And he said his dad was from York, was from the orphanage here, and he wanted to announce in York, so we've been close ever since, from day one."

Love's chapter also hosted an event, Souls to the Polls, which featured church choirs, food, and a speech from Parnell before attendees marched to the polls to cast early ballots. In contrast, Norman skipped out on an NAACP-hosted debate less than two weeks before the election.

Incremental change vs. bold steps?

But questions remain about whether a centrist Democrat is necessarily the best bet for a party looking to win Southern congressional districts in the Trump era.

One of Parnell's two primary opponents was Alexis Frank, a young mother of color and Army veteran whose platform was more progressive than Parnell's. But Parnell was endorsed by Democrat John Spratt, who lost the seat to Mulvaney in 2010; Stephen Benjamin, the Black mayor of nearby Columbia; and Jaime Harrison, the outgoing state Democratic Party chair, who is also Black. In the end, Frank finished with only 21.5 percent of the primary vote. She endorsed Parnell in the general election but hasn't yet ruled out a run in 2018.

While party activists maintain the importance of appealing to the center — Hayes argued that "running a Bernie Sanders Democrat would never have worked here" — Frank disagrees, saying that her party needs to appeal to people who are disaffected and sitting on the sidelines.

"As Democrats, one of the biggest things we have to do is change our message," she told Facing South. "What's going to make a young 18-year-old single mom go out to the polls? Someone who looks like them — who looks like me."

Something that local Democratic activists do agree on is that party organizations need to invest more in the district. For example, Parnell's campaign received only $275,000 from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a small fraction of the $5 million it gave to Jon Ossoff's high-profile but unsuccessful special election campaign in Georgia's 6th District, also held on June 20. But cash isn't the only thing a campaign needs from the party to succeed.

"We just need people," said Landires of Indivisible, who said she spent 12 hours canvassing Chester County alone on Election Day. "I heard that Jon Ossoff was sending buses to Charlotte [one hour from Chester County] and bringing them back to Georgia — why not me? Why don't I have a bus? I feel like Archie could have won had we had maybe another 100 people helping us. But I would've taken 25."

However, Parnell supporters were not envious of the media frenzy that surrounded the Ossoff campaign. Parnell volunteer Heather Overman, a local activist who leads a Women's March Huddle group, thinks that kind of attention would have hurt their effort. Some were even worried about the June appearance of Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez at a Parnell canvassing event.

"The fact that we flew under the radar helped us," Overman said. "It meant that Republicans didn't pump quite as much money into their side."

Parnell's impressive effort raises questions for progressives in conservative-leaning districts heading into the 2018 midterm elections. Should they throw support behind centrists in hopes of moving politics incrementally to the left? Or is it time to take bold progressive steps in hopes of appealing to disaffected voters fed up with politics as usual?

Although there is disagreement about the answers to these questions in South Carolina's 5th District and elsewhere across the country, Parnell volunteer Emily Jaeckli noted that in the aftermath of her candidate's surprisingly successful campaign there is consensus on at least one thing.

"We'll be very much looking forward to 2018," she said.