Archie Parnell greets supporters in Chester

Archie Parnell (right) greets supporters in Chester, South Carolina on Tuesday, June 12, 2018 during the Democratic primary for the 5th Congressional District seat.

COLUMBIA — Archie Parnell, the South Carolina congressional candidate who admitted to beating his ex-wife several decades ago, overcame a wave of intense criticism from within his own party to easily win in the Democratic primary Tuesday.

Parnell won the 5th Congressional District nomination by capturing 60 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results that will be certified later this week.

He defeated a trio of candidates with little name recognition: Sidney Moore, with 17 percent of the vote; Mark Ali, with 13 percent of the vote; and Steve Lough, with 10 percent of the vote. 

"I'm humbled," said Parnell, a former tax attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice. "But it's not about me. It's about the voters of the district. We've got a lot of work ahead of us."

Parnell's candidacy had been seen by Democrats as an opportunity to flip the GOP-held congressional seat for the district that stretches from Parnell's hometown of Sumter to the Charlotte suburb of Rock Hill. But after The Post and Courier reported Parnell attacked his ex-wife in a 1970s incident, his chances of defeating incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman in November's general election seem to have greatly diminished.

On Tuesday night, he made a new plea to Democrats voting in the general election. 

"Look at who I am today," he said. "I acknowledge what I did 45 years ago was wrong and I have to face that. The issues are just too important for us to ignore."

That didn't stop him from enjoying a runaway victory in Tuesday's primary.

Parnell was upbeat Tuesday afternoon as he visited the polls in Chester with his current wife, Sarah, and his daughter, Lydia. 

"I woke up this morning in a good mood," he said.

Still, many state and national party leaders, as well as much of Parnell's campaign staff, have abandoned him. Several prominent Democrats, including state party chair Trav Robertson, prior to Tuesday's primary said Parnell should step aside. 

Parnell vowed to stay in the race, stating he wanted to leave the decision up to voters. He also promised that he has changed since the incident that caused his ex-wife to fear for her life and obtain a restraining order.

"I am not that same person," he said in a video released last week.

It was clear during voting Tuesday that his support hadn’t entirely dwindled.

Texts rolled in from friends and fellow Democrats who said they voted for him. He hugged supporters who showed up at Chester precincts.

Alex Wylie, the former Chester County Democrat chair, stopped his car on the street when he recognized Parnell.

“I appreciate you running,” Wylie said. “Anything I can do at all — let me know.”

Parnell responded, “That encouragement means a lot to me.”

A prolific fundraiser, Parnell seemed to have a bright political future after he lost a tight race to Norman in last year's special election. His campaign earned praise as one of the best Democratic bids of the year and was something of a model for Democrats hoping to flip seats in other red states, including Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama. 

Now, in the wake of his domestic abuse revelation, Parnell's refusal to drop out has drawn comparisons to Jones' opponent in that race — Roy Moore, who didn't back down after being accused by several women of sexual assault.

One evening in 1973, Parnell used at tire iron to break a glass door at a home where his ex-wife was staying, according to court documents obtained by The Post and Courier. She said he struck her several times and beat her again later that evening in what she described as "acts of physical cruelty."

That didn't entirely deter voters, including some who said they were unaware of the incident.

Demorrious Robinson, pastor of Chester’s New Life Church, stumped with Parnell all afternoon. Robinson said he believes in redemption.

“If we were looking for a perfect candidate, then the only person worthy is Jesus Christ, and even he wasn’t fully accepted,” he said.

Jane Robinson, 64, said she voted for Parnell, despite knowing about his domestic abuse.

“I take everything with a grain of salt," she said, adding she was unfamiliar with the race’s three other candidates.

Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

Joseph Cranney is a reporter based in Columbia, covering state and local government. He previously covered government and sports for newspapers in Florida and Pennsylvania.