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Top South Carolina candidate refuses to quit congressional race after abuse discovery

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

Sumter Democrat Archie Parnell makes phone calls in December to voters on behalf of Alabama Democrat Doug Jones. Provided

Archie Parnell, a Democratic congressional hopeful who earned national attention after nearly winning in deep red South Carolina last year, is resisting pleas to withdraw after his campaign staff discovered that he physically abused his ex-wife in the 1970s.

In divorce records obtained by The Post and Courier, Kathleen Parnell said the marriage deteriorated after two years in 1973 because of "unwarranted accusations" from her husband.  

In October 1973, Archie Parnell, then a University of South Carolina student, was locked out of some friends' apartment to protect Kathleen Parnell, who was staying there. At 2 a.m., Archie Parnell used a tire iron to break a glass door, the complaint said. He made more unspecified accusations to Kathleen Parnell before striking her several times. She said she was beaten again later that evening.

After the "acts of physical cruelty," Kathleen Parnell said she feared for her life and did not want to stay married. She obtained a restraining order against Archie Parnell after seeking the divorce, according to court documents. The divorce was finalized in early 1974.

Confronted with the court records by aides last week, Parnell did not deny the allegations. But even as his staff fled the campaign en masse, he refused to drop out of the race Monday.

“This campaign has always been about the people of the 5th district, my home, but never about me," Parnell said in a statement. "Forty five years ago, while still a college student, I did something that I have regretted every single day since. In response to actions I feel unnecessary to specify, I lashed out and became violent with other people, including my former wife, which led to a divorce and monumental change in my life.

"These actions were inexcusable, wrong and downright embarrassing," Parnell said. "Since then, 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."

Yates Baroody, the Democratic operative who had been managing Parnell's campaign, left his team on Friday after she became aware of the graphic details in the divorce records.

"As soon as I discovered them, I immediately resigned from the campaign and advised Archie he should withdraw from the campaign immediately," Baroody told The Post and Courier. "He has no business running for Congress and he never did."

South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson called on Parnell to drop out of the race Monday.

"In light of this sad revelation, Archie Parnell has no choice but to withdraw from the race for the 5th Congressional District," Robertson said. "His actions, though long ago, directly contradict the values of the Democratic Party."

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The revelations may have dealt a massive blow to Democrats' chances of flipping a Republican seat in South Carolina.

A prolific fundraiser, Parnell has drawn endorsements from many of South Carolina's most prominent Democrats and interest from the national party, who have targeted the historically conservative district as a possible opportunity to flip the GOP-held seat that stretches from Rock Hill to his hometown of Sumter.

After stints as a tax attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice and congressional Ways and Means Committee, Parnell worked at financial firm Goldman Sachs and energy giant Exxon Mobil before leaving to run for Congress.

Parnell's 2017 special election campaign, in which he lost by 3 points to then-state Rep. Ralph Norman, earned plaudits as one of the best-run Democratic bids of the year and a model for Democrats in red states across the country, including for the surprise victory of Alabama Sen. Doug Jones.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had picked Norman's district as one of more than 100 Republican-held seats they are targeting this year. The group also called on Parnell to withdraw Monday night.

“What Archie Parnell did is inexcusable and deeply disturbing, and he should drop out of this race immediately," said DCCC communications director Meredith Kelly.

Democratic former state Rep. Bakari Sellers, now a CNN political commentator, withdrew his endorsement of Parnell and said he should drop out of the race. While some actions can be forgiven, Sellers said, domestic violence is not one of them.

"Archie does not belong in the United States Congress or on the ballot," Sellers said. "Politically, it's one less chance for Democrats to take back the House, but who cares when it comes to issues such as domestic violence?"

Three other Democrats are running in the primary to face Norman: Mark Ali, Steve Lough and Sidney Moore. None are considered strong contenders to unseat the Rock Hill Republican. Lough has garnered attention because of his background as a professional clown.

Even if he withdraws, Parnell's name will still appear on June 12 primary ballots. S.C. Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said it is too late at this point to get it removed.

Norman made headlines earlier this year when he displayed his loaded gun during a meeting with constituents. Parnell looked to capitalize on that incident, releasing a video in which he called for "common-sense" gun control laws, like universal background checks and restricting gun sales for people with a history of domestic violence.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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

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