Archie Parnell phone calls (copy) (copy) (copy) (copy)

Archie Parnell makes phone calls in December to voters on behalf of Alabama Democrat Doug Jones. After divorce records came out revealing that Parnell abused his ex-wife, he apologized to Sumter Democrats at a breakfast meeting Saturday. Provided

South Carolina congressional candidate Archie Parnell made his first public appearance Saturday morning since divorce records emerged revealing that he physically abused his ex-wife decades ago, apologizing to Democrats at a breakfast meeting in his hometown of Sumter.

Parnell addressed the gathering of around 40 for just a few minutes, according to Sumter Democratic Party chairwoman Barbara Bowman, who hosted the public monthly meeting at a Golden Corral restaurant.

"He was very apologetic," Bowman said. "He did express that this is something we're talking about 45 years ago, that he's spoken to his ex-wife and he was 22 years old.

"But he didn't make any excuses. He just apologized and said he was just full of regret and he was sorry."

Bowman said she had invited Parnell to the meeting before the abuse revelations came out last week and left the door open for him to join them if he wanted. The apology was received "extremely well" by many Democrats in the room, Bowman said.

His efforts to make amends comes as many top Democratic leaders, including state party chairman Trav Robertson and U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia, have urged Parnell to drop out. His refusal to leave the race is drawing comparisons to Republican Roy Moore, who kept running for a Senate seat in Alabama last year despite pleas from fellow Republicans after several women had accused him of sexual misconduct.

But some Democrats in the 5th congressional district, which stretches from Sumter to Rock Hill, have urged Parnell to continue running.

Those supporters include Anne Puccio, the Chester County Democratic Party chairwoman, who said she's come to know Parnell as "a genuinely compassionate, hard-working man."

"I think he's strong enough to face adversity and finish the job of winning this race," Puccio said. "I know there's a lot of people that are shocked and dismayed, but I think he is the strongest candidate and he cares deeply for the people in the 5th district."

Taken a toll

Former state Sen. Phil Leventis, a Sumter Democrat who attended the meeting Saturday, said he was planning to host a fundraiser for Parnell at his house on June 6, but Parnell has now canceled all fundraisers before the primary.

Even after the reports emerged, though, Leventis said he and his wife still plan to support Parnell and believes the former Wall Street executive has many other forgiving supporters.

"We're concerned about Archie and his family, as is Archie. It's taken a great toll on them," Leventis said. "But at the same time, they are top quality folks. If he wasn't contrite, he wouldn't be quite so upset about all this as he really is."

Still, former York County Democratic Party chairwoman Amy Hayes said  the "overwhelming consensus" among many Democrats she's talked to in the district is that Parnell should drop out. 

"Sometimes the honorable path isn't the one straight forward," Hayes said.

Hayes' successor in York County, current Democratic chairman Jim Thompson, called for Parnell to quit the race in a Facebook post this week, saying the details about his abuse are "simply disqualifying for a potential member of the United States House of Representatives."

"The Democratic Party cannot and will not be part of a political system where mores are decided by what is the candidate du jour," Thompson said. "The ends never justify the means."

Putting party first

The dispute has roiled Democrats in the district, with contentious debates regularly breaking out on social media about whether Parnell's abusive past deserves to be forgiven.

In many cases, disagreements over whether Parnell should continue running split along generational lines. Several older supporters said they have their own dark episodes in the closet and would not want to be judged by their worst moments in life.

“I wish he’d told people about this ahead of time,” said Nan Saye, 63, a veterinarian in Rock Hill. “But if you want to see the very worst of a human being, look at their divorce records. He didn’t repeat it with his new wife for 40 years, so his is not a character flaw, it was a single event.”

Some Parnell supporters argued that sending a Democrat to Congress is more important than scrutinizing the personal history of candidates.

“If I was a Republican, yeah, I probably would have held my nose and voted for Roy Moore," said Cherie Mabrey, a 62-year-old retiree from Catawba. "The Republicans put party first and so do I."

Parnell told attendees at Saturday's meeting that he would make a final decision about whether he will continue running in the race before the June 12 primary. He did not respond to a request for additional comment Saturday.

A good chance gone?

Before the divorce records came out, Parnell's campaign was considered one of the Democrats' best chances to flip a congressional seat in deep-red South Carolina. He lost to Republican Ralph Norman by 3 percent in a special election last year.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had picked Norman's district as one of more than 100 Republican-held seats to target this year. Now the influential group has joined calls for Parnell to withdraw and election analysts say Republicans are all but assured to hold on to the district.

While Parnell would still have been an underdog against Norman even before the abuse revelation, the three other Democrats seeking the party's nomination in the 5th district — Mark Ali, Steve Lough and Sidney Moore — are political newcomers who have even less of a chance of upsetting the congressman in a Republican-leaning district.

Before Saturday's event in Sumter, Parnell had not previously spoken publicly other than a statement to The Post and Courier when the abuse history first resurfaced days earlier, saying his actions were "inexcusable, wrong and downright embarrassing."

After he refused to quit, Parnell's campaign staff quit en masse and some donors have sought refunds.

According to divorce records, Parnell beat his wife at least two times during one night in 1973 after he broke into an apartment by smashing a glass door with a tire iron. She won a restraining order and received a divorce citing "acts of physical cruelty."

Since the divorce was finalized in 1974, Parnell said in the statement, "my life has been changed by a remarkable woman, two amazing daughters, a forgiving God and a career that has taught me to cherish what I have."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina statehouse and congressional delegation. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.