Chad Connelly broke away from a small group of friends Tuesday evening at The Magnolia Room with a broad smile on his face.
Several months of campaigning were about to end, and Connelly’s friend Ralph Norman was set to be elected as South Carolina’s newest congressman.
Even if that victory was by just 3 percentage points, a win is a win, Connelly said.
“I felt good about it all along,” said Connelly, a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman. “I know there were folks on the other side spending a lot of money to come at us, but look where that got them. This will mean good things for us in the 2018 midterms.”
Norman, a Rock Hill real estate developer and former state lawmaker, crossed the finish line in Tuesday’s 5th Congressional District race with about 3,000 more votes than Democrat Archie Parnell. Parnell, a Sumter tax expert, was a political newcomer running in his first campaign.
The unofficial results, according to the website SCVotes.org, showed Norman with 44,906 votes (51.1 percent) to Parnell’s 42,072 votes (47.9 percent).
The closer-than-expected decision has South Carolina Democrats similarly upbeat. Trav Robertson, the state’s Democratic Party chair, says the election results bode well for the party in November 2018, when all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives will be up for grabs.
Former U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-Indian Land) won re-election in 2016 to a fourth term last year over Democrat Fran Person of Tega Cay, winning by about 20 percentage points. Mulvaney later resigned to become President Donald Trump’s budget director.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Robertson said. “The great thing about Archie’s race is that it brought all of the county parties together, with all the ancillary organizations, with a common purpose to elect a Democrat. That’s a model that can be used across the country.”
2,834 Republican Ralph Norman and Democrat Archie Parnell were separated by 2,834 votes in the special election
The months following Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency has changed the political landscape, said political science professor Rick Whisonant of York Technical College.
Rural Democrats in S.C.’s 5th District have become more enthused and connected to the political scene, he said, which led to the sharp rise in votes for a Democrat on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Whisonant said Parnell’s campaign employed a strong ground game, connecting with voters by knocking on doors even in the waning hours of the special election.
“On the Democratic side, they can say, ‘My goodness, election after election, we’ve been getting beat by 15 percent, but now we’re getting closer and closer,’” said Whisonant. “Even though the media and pundits keep up with this second by second, the average person does not. They care about the local issues important to them.”
Whisonant said voters should expect to gear up for a new round of campaigning ahead of the midterms.
Often, the ruling party loses some seats in Congress during what Whisonant calls a “realignment period.” Whether the Democrats or Republicans strike quicker to sustain momentum through the next year and a half will go a long way to determining control of the U.S. House.
Republicans swept to control of both houses of Congress and the executive branch last November. They look to solidify that hold as Trump’s first term approaches its halfway point in 2018.
“It’s a sign we sent to Washington,” said Norman on Tuesday, after taking pictures with supporters. “It’s a great time for the country. People want conservatives. They want the government to work for them."
Democrats are now 0-4 in special elections this summer in Kansas, Montana, Georgia and South Carolina. But Whisonant says looking only at win-loss results like that misses the point.
“This is a great opportunity for the Democrats now,” he said. “If they build an early ground game and create a precise set of ideas of what works, and what doesn’t, they can put together a positive campaign, rather than simply rejecting Trump.”
It's a great time for the country. People want conservatives.
Ralph Norman, newly elected congressman for South Carolina’s 5th District
While campaigning, Norman often tied himself to Trump’s agenda, but he mentioned during his victory party that he may have “disagreements” with the president from time to time. Still, he said he thanks Trump for nominating Neil Gorsuch as a conservative Supreme Court judge and for fighting to loosen regulations on business.
Robertson said Trump will continue to lose popularity as he fights to fully repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Senate Republicans are expected to release a draft of their own health care bill on Thursday. The U.S. House recently passed its own bill, the American Health Care Act, by a narrow margin.
Trump celebrated the passage of the House bill in a Rose Garden speech, but later called the bill “mean.”
“Donald Trump is the gift that keeps on giving,” Robertson said. “The voters who came out in 2016, but didn’t on Tuesday, could be persuaded by something else to vote for a different candidate. We have to personalize these Washington issues.”
Rock Hill third-party candidates Josh Thornton (American Party) and David Kulma (Green Party) collected 319 votes and 242 votes, respectively, according to SCVotes.org.
On the Democratic side, they can say ‘My goodness, election after election, we’ve been getting beat by 15 percent, but now we’re getting closer and closer.’
Rick Whisonant, political science professor at York Technical College