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Race For SC's 5th Congressional District Is Down To Wire

South Carolina Government

One week from today, voters in South Carolina's 5th Congressional District will pick their next congressman.

This special election comes after a bruising primary campaign for Republicans which included a runoff and a recount.

For Democrats, they're hoping South Carolinians will do what Montanans and Kansans did not, flip a red House district blue.  WFAE's Tom Bullock is with All Things Considered host Mark Rumsey to walk us through the latest in this race.

MR: This special election was called when Republican Representative Mick Mulvaney resigned his seat to serve as White House budget director. And his new boss, President Donald Trump is featured heavily in this contest.

TB: In fact Mark, both major party candidates are trying their best to make that the case.

Let's start with Republican Ralph Norman. He's a former state legislator and a property developer. And unabashedly supports President Trump. He gave the president an A++ grade for his first 100 days in office. And here is how he explained that extra high mark to Charlotte Talks host Mike Collins.

"The things I like about Trump, just the direction in which he is headed. People can criticize that. You know the tweets, is that right or wrong, I don’t know. People can read a tweet or they can not read a tweed, that's optional. But I like what he did in Syria. I like getting out of the Paris Accord."

TB: What he did in Syria, by the way, was the air strike on a Syrian air base base earlier this year in response to a suspected chemical attack by the government.

And the Paris Accord is the climate deal championed by President Obama which looked to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

MR: So that's Republican Ralph Norman's take on Trump. What about his Democratic opponent, Archie Parnell?

TB: As you would expect, he has a very different view of the president. Parnell is a political newcomer, this is the first office he's run for. He's a political moderate, and a former tax lawyer with Goldman Sachs. He, too, spoke to Charlotte Talks host Mike Collins and Parnell said he decided to run for Congress in response to Trump's election and the policies he's putting forward.

"I think things are going off the rails. His travel ban for example, the Paris Accord. Russia, another example. There are many examples."

TB: Again, Mark, both candidates would love this election to be a referendum on President Trump.

MR: There are, of course, other issues in this race.

TB: Absolutely. Let's start with health care. Democrat Parnell says Obamacare needs to be fixed, not repealed or replaced. Of the health care plan passed by the House and now before the Senate, Parnell notes that it cuts $600 billion out of Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor and disabled, in order to fund tax cuts for the wealthy.

"What you have under the Republican Health Act is a shift of the burden to those people who can least afford it and giving much money, so much money to the wealthy."

TB: Republican Norman supports the repeal and replacement of Obamacare. He says the Republican health care plan is a good first step.

"Is it perfect? No. But it's putting something that I think people can look at and make their own decision. But the way it was going for the last seven years since it was put in place it was not sustainable and you can tell because insurance companies were getting out because of the losses."

TB: Mark, another big difference between these candidates is on Social Security. Norman says he wants to increase the age of eligibility for the program and limit the benefits paid to wealthier individuals. Parnell wants to keep the program largely as it is. 

MR: Tom, do we have any idea of who the front-runner is in this race?

TB: Mark, Donald Trump won this district by 20 points last November. And former Congressman Mick Mulvaney did even better than that. So Democratic candidate Parnell has tried to stake ground as a centrist.

"I'd like to be the adult in the room. If Donald Trump does something that I disagree with I will fight him tooth and nail. If there are things we can agree on, perhaps infrastructure, we would work together."

TB: And this tack seems to be working. A Democratic internal poll leaked to the press shows Parnell down by 10 points and closing. In this district, this year, that's seen as being really good. So good in fact that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee poured $275,000 into the campaign over the last few weeks. That pales in comparison to the $5 million they've spent in Georgia but it's nothing to sneeze at.

And Republicans are taking this poll seriously as well. Turnout can be really low in special elections like these. That's something at the top of Republican candidate Ralph Norman's mind.

"Voter apathy is the thing that worries me and every conservative really because we had, what, 7 percent turnout in the primary? And they could very well take this seat."

MR: Finally Tom, have there been any surprises or controversies in this election so far?

TB: Yes, but thankfully nothing like they had in Montana. The controversy here is all about Archie Parnell's voting record in South Carolina. The Democrat first registered to vote in the state in 1972. But the first recorded vote he cast in South Carolina came this year, in his primary.

Norman's campaign pounced on this releasing a statement which reads in part "Mr. Parnell hasn’t lived in the 5th Congressional District for 40 years, and, for the past 25 years, he’s called China home,”

And Parnell did live in China for a time - he was posted there for work. He, of course, has lived here in the U.S. as well. Parnell could still vote absentee, which his campaign said he did for presidential elections. But Parnell's campaign said they don’t know where Parnell was registered during that time, except that he once voted in Texas.

And they countered by trying to focus on some controversial votes Norman cast as a member of the South Carolina House.

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.