By Jim Ellis
March 15, 2017 — The special election that has so far attracted the least attention in this active early political season is Office of Management & Budget Director Mick Mulvaney’s north-central South Carolina congressional district.
Most believe the Republicans will retain the seat, but while the GOP victories here have been consistently solid, they are not landslides. Then-state Sen. Mulvaney first won the district under a different configuration in 2010, ousting 14-term Congressman John Spratt (D-Rock Hill) in a 55-45 percent result. The Republican incumbent then averaged 57.8 percent of the vote in his three subsequent re-election campaigns, reaching his highest total this past November, at 59.2 percent.
Seven Republicans, three Democrats, and five minor party contenders have filed as candidates. In South Carolina, the special election system is partisan and three-tiered. The party primaries are posted for May 2. Using the state’s typical two-week run-off format, the secondary election will be May 16 if no candidate secures an absolute majority in the first vote. The special general is scheduled for June 20.
In all likelihood, with seven Republicans on the primary ballot, it is probable that the GOP contest will yield a run-off election. Democrats appear to have one serious candidate compared to a pair of “also-ran” contenders. Therefore, it is at least plausible that the Democratic nominee will be chosen in the May 2 primary.
The likely Democratic candidate is former Justice Department attorney and ex-corporate lawyer Archie Parnell. A South Carolina native who became a government lawyer and then a New York tax attorney might be a tough sell for Deep South GOP crossover voters, a group that any Democrat must attract if they are to have any chance at winning a southern election in the 21st century. Therefore, whether Parnell has the ideal background to win in such a district is unlikely.
Parnell is also not the Democratic leadership’s first choice. Originally, they attempted to recruit state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who was twice the Democratic nominee for governor, but he ultimately decided not to enter this race.
For the GOP, the seven candidates appear led by state House Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope and state Representative and former congressional nominee (2006, against then-Rep. Spratt) Ralph Norman. Ex-state Republican Party chairman Chad Connelly is also a significant candidate. South Carolina State Guard Commander Tom Mullikin, attorney Kris Wampler, education activist and former Superintendent of Public Instruction candidate Sheri Few, and International Ministry aid staff member Ray Craig complete the GOP field.
Pope had been an announced candidate in what was expected to be an open governor’s race. But incumbent Nikki Haley’s appointment as US Ambassador to the United Nations in the new Trump Administration allowed Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster (R) to ascend to the state’s top political position. Since it is clear that Gov. McMaster will seek a full term next year, Pope backed away from a statewide primary challenge and hopped into this special election.
It is likely the race evolves into a Pope vs. Norman contest, who are the likely run-off participants at this campaign’s outset. The large number of candidates will draw enough votes to deny one of the two a majority in the primary, so this nomination race looks to be going the distance.