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Democrats Hope Trump Presidency Provides Opportunity To Take SC Congressional Seat

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Arguably the most famous Democratic congressman to represent South Carolina's 5th district is one Frank Underwood.

But Underwood is a work of fiction, the lead character in the TV series House of Cards. And South Carolina's 5th Congressional District has been a Republican stronghold since 2010.

Still, there are three candidates looking to make life imitate fiction and flip the 5th back to the Democrats. They face their first challenge May 2 in a primary special election. On Monday, WFAE’s Tom Bullock focused on the Republican candidates. This story focuses on the Democratic candidates. Toms’ coverage includes a conversation with Morning Edition host Marshall Terry:

Marshall: For those who don’t know, remind us why there is a special congressional election in South Carolina this year.

Tom: his election was called after Republican Mick Mulvaney resigned his seat in the House of Representatives in order to serve as President Donald Trump's budget director. Mulvaney was first elected back in 2010 as part of the Tea Party wave. He co-founded the very conservative House Freedom Caucus, and Mulvaney was very popular in his District. He won re-election last November by a wider margin than Donald Trump, who easily carried both the district and the state.

Marshall: So it seems this would be a seen as a safe Republican seat.

Tom: It would seem so. But Democratic candidates have fared surprisingly well in other recent special elections. One barely lost in Kansas in what had long been a safe Republican seat, and last week in Georgia another Democrat just missed a 50% threshold to win another long-held Republican seat and now will face a runoff. So this year, with the strong reactions to the Trump presidency, you never know.

And this is a three-person race in the Democratic primary. First there's Les Murphy. He's a former Marine, a disabled veteran who founded and runs a non-profit to help others like him. Here's what Murphy had to say about improving schools at a recent candidate forum.

“Giving teachers a raise actually inspires them to teach to inspire and not spend it on testing. We want creativity and we want to raise the teachers’ level of pay so they don’t live check to check and they are truly teaching our children,” Murphy said.

But Murphy's campaign hasn't garnered the buzz of the other two candidates. All three have never held an elected office.

The two frontrunners represent very different sides of the Democratic Party.

Archie Parnell decided to run for congress when one of his friends would not.

“I was talking to my neighbor across the street, who was the mayor of Sumter for 12 years, and I tried to convince him to run for the seat; he's a Democrat. But he said he didn't want to do that.”

Instead the neighbor convinced Parnell to jump in the race. He’s a centrist Democrat who has worked for the Justice Department, and as a staffer on the powerful ways and means committee on Capitol Hill. And he’s worked as a tax expert with investment firm Goldman Sachs. All this along with what he calls his "South Carolina Values" of civility, thoughtfulness and respect for all is why Parnell believes he appeals to voters.

“They will see the business experience I've had. The tax experience I've had both inside government and outside of government. I think they do appreciate somebody with that sort of experience to help them.”

And since we all love color-coding candidate's political views…Parnell's moderate stance mean's he'd be a purply-blue. It’s a start contrast to the deep Bernie Sanders shade of blue of his chief rival in this Democratic primary. Alexis Frank says she stands out for a number of reasons.

“For starters I'm the only woman,” Frank says, laughing. “And I firmly believe now is the time for younger people to get involved.”

And that she is. Whereas Parnell is 66, Frank is 26. She’s a veteran who met and married her husband while serving. Frank is now a proud stay-at-home mom of two; her husband is still active duty. And she just earned a graduate certificate in project management. 

Frank sees her age as an asset.

“So many people who are in government are like ‘Oh, Millennials are so important but none of them are moving them like Bernie Sanders did. And so the only other way you can get millennials fired up is to say this is our time to do these things and do them now.

On the issues, Frank and Parnell agree on some things. Take Obamacare.

“There are problems with Obamacare, and it needs to be fixed. No law is passed in perfect condition and things evolve,” Parnell says.

“I would never say that Obamacare was a perfect plan. But what you don’t do is abolish something that has worked for the majority of people. You get your best people together and rework the kinks,” Frank says.

They differ on other legislative priorities. Archie Parnell wants significant changes to the tax code that would make filing simpler and encourage companies to bring overseas profits back to America.

Frank wants more money to take care of veterans and their families.

The Democrats in this primary must win 50 percent of the vote to avoid a May 16th runoff between the top two candidates.

But either way the primary is just the first hurdle. This, is true for any candidate…but arguably more so for these Democrats. The reason is simple, says pollster and political scientist Scott Huffmon of Winthrop University. The Democrats haven’t been able to find a candidate to do well in the general election there in years.

“Everybody thought Fran Person, who ran against Mick Mulvaney in the last election cycle, was the person who would give them the chance. However, he ended up losing to Mick Mulvaney by more than Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump.”

So how do these Democrats hope to flip the 5th? Both say it starts with President Trump and the reaction of some moderate Republicans to his policies.

“We're using the momentum of people who are pissed. They are done with his lies, with the way that he has acted since he was elected,” Frank says.

“What we're experiencing now is sort of a Trump heartburn or second thoughts or buyer's remorse right now,” Parnell adds.

So both are reaching out to moderate Republicans hoping to win cross-over votes if they make it to the general election.

But if they don’t succeed, Huffmon notes there's another election for the same seat in 2018.

“And that's really, frankly, the best opening for the Democrats if some of Trump's policies don’t pan out and he is getting hurt in public opinion more broadly than that will be a very important factor in 2018 general election.”

Both Alexis Frank and Archie Parnell say they're focused on this year and this race. But both have left open their options come 2018.

Tom Bullock decided to trade the khaki clad masses and traffic of Washington DC for Charlotte in 2014. Before joining WFAE, Tom spent 15 years working for NPR. Over that time he served as everything from an intern to senior producer of NPR’s Election Unit. Tom also spent five years as the senior producer of NPR’s Foreign Desk where he produced and reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Haiti, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon among others. Tom is looking forward to finally convincing his young daughter, Charlotte, that her new hometown was not, in fact, named after her.