COLUMBIA — South Carolina Republicans want to continue their dominance in a special congressional election this week as a Democratic newcomer hopes for an upset in the state's first major race since the election of President Donald Trump.
A pair of wealthy businessmen have spent weeks hawking different perspectives of the president's policies to voters across the 11 northern and central South Carolina counties that make up the state's 5th congressional district.
Voters there will make their choice Tuesday.
Republican Ralph Norman touted his experience as a Rock Hill real estate developer while talking about business with the owners of the Corner Scoop ice cream shop in Newberry on Wednesday. Norman, a longtime member of the S.C. Legislature, emerged from a crowded Republican field by running a campaign imitating the ultra-conservative, anti-tax policy positions of Mick Mulvaney, who left the congressional seat to become Trump's budget chief.
"My one issue in this country is to get on a firm financial footing," Norman said during a televised candidates forum. "There's not much you can do if you're bankrupt."
Democrat Archie Parnell, a former attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice and business manager with Goldman Sachs, made his best pitch Thursday to members of the Military Order of the Purple Heart at the Logan's Roadhouse in Sumter, as he held out documentation of his father's own wounding on a Pacific island during World War II. The Sumter native has pitched himself as a moderate running in a once solidly Democratic district.
"I'd like to think of myself as a new kind of Democrat," Parnell said during an interview. "I will be someone who thinks for myself."
The special election, which heated up as soon as Mulvaney was nominated in January, has not drawn as much national attention or campaign cash as a similar special election in Georgia, where the Democratic candidate and party have raised more than $20 million and hope to make a statement before the 2018 midterm elections.
But the stakes remain high in South Carolina. If elected, Norman would join the Republican majority in the U.S. House that has sought to advance Trump's promised agenda, while Parnell has vowed to oppose major parts of the president's budget and health care priorities.
Norman holds an edge in fundraising for the seat that sprawls from Spartanburg County in the north through the Charlotte suburbs of York County to Sumter County in the south.
At of the end of May, Norman had spent $1.1 million trying to win his first congressional election, including nearly $500,000 that he loaned himself. The National Republican Congressional Committee kicked in $97,000.
Over that same time period, Parnell spent more than half a million dollars trying to win his first ever political contest. He has pumped $305,000 into his campaign. In a small surprise, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee contributed $275,000 to a challenger in a state where Republicans dominate and Trump won handily last year.
Health care looms large
The congressional fight over the American health care system has bled over into special elections, including South Carolina's 5th District race, as the candidates have been pressed to clarify their positions on the Republican's American Health Care Act.
The questions have left Norman explaining whether he supports the current version of the Republican bill, which is estimated to increase the number of uninsured individuals in the country by 23 million people by 2026, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.
Even President Trump is now calling that version of the bill "mean."
Parnell has advocated for fixing the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, as state health insurance marketplaces set up under the 2010 law continue to decline as insurers pull out.
In South Carolina, only one provider remains on the insurance exchange.
During a panel with ETV on Thursday, the candidates said they supported keeping requirements that insurers cover pre-existing conditions, even though Norman says he would have supported the House bill that allows states to decide whether people with those medical histories can be charged inflated premiums if their coverage lapses.
"What the House proposed, I would have supported," said Norman, who has said he would join the fiscally conservative House Freedom Caucus. "For a lot of people it didn't go far enough, but we have to get something through both houses."
It was also at that panel that Parnell suggested he was not in support of a government-operated single-payer health care system that other Democrats and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders have promoted.
"I don't think we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater," Parnell said. "We need to fix Obamacare and not repeal it."
Test on Trump
The special election has also seen a focus put on Trump's first proposed budget that was drafted and rolled out by Mulvaney.
Norman says he's in support of Trump's proposed budget plan, which increases military spending by nearly $500 million over the next 10 years but slashes $1.4 trillion over that same time period for Medicaid, food stamps, environmental initiatives and other non-defense spending.
"We've got to put the money into the military and where we pay for it, again, I trust Trump's judgement. He's taking a scalpel approach, which I do in my business arena," Norman said during an interview, adding he could support a government shutdown over the federal debt ceiling.
But Parnell thinks Mulvaney's work, which only balances the budget over the next decade by factoring in exorbitant growth estimates, is cruel and reduces people to numbers.
"That budget lacks compassion," said Parnell, who worked as tax attorney and a staffer on the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee in the 1970s. "You have to have empathy for other people. You can't just work an equation and see the mathematics of it. You have to see how real people are affected by that."
Playing on the past
The lines of attack from each campaign have largely played on their opponent's professional histories.
The Norman campaign has criticized Parnell for not voting in the district in past elections and working as Goldman Sachs manager in Hong Kong.
"My job took me out of South Carolina," said Parnell, a Sumter native who earned $1.1 million last year before retiring from with Goldman Sachs. "People follow their jobs where their jobs take them. I don't see the fact that I've been outside the state of South Carolina as a liability. I see that as a broadening thing."
The Parnell camp has in turn tried to use Norman's voting record in the S.C. House of Representatives against him, including his opposition to road funding bills, $40 million in aid for farmers in the state after the 2015 flood and a 2013 bill that allowed state bonds to be used to help expand the Boeing aircraft plant North of Charleston.
During the ETV forum, Norman said he is interested in bringing high-paying jobs to South Carolina but added, "On the other hand, you don't want to give the state away."
Parnell has also condemned Norman, who is considered favored in the race, for not agreeing to meet at three candidate forums that were planned by AARP, NAACP and the S.C. Farm Bureau.
"They think they've got it locked up, and they don't," Parnell said. "I think people are gong to be surprised."
Also running in the special election are Green Party candidate David Kulma, American Party candidate Josh Thorton and Libertarian Party candidate Victor Kocher.
Correction: An earlier version of this story improperly stated that Archie Parnell provided congressional testimony on banking related issues. That testimony was given in Hong Kong.