Less than a year ago, Archie Parnell was the Democratic candidate who no one saw coming.

A political novice with professorial glasses and quirky TV ads, Parnell ran for South Carolina's 5th Congressional District in June on a commitment to compromise.

He lost, but fewer than 3,000 votes separated him from the victor, Republican Ralph Norman — a finish much closer than most thought in the GOP-leaning district anchored out of Rock Hill.

That special election in the spring was Parnell's first bid, but Politico dubbed the attempt the "best Democratic campaign of 2017."

To Parnell, "it was heartbreaking." But the once-shy Sumter man is now walking up to people and sticking out his hand. Parnell said his new campaign, though still in its infancy, is attracting more supporters than he had in the special election. That gives him hope.

"I know in my bones that we will win this race," Parnell told The Post and Courier.

Parnell's second attempt comes at a time when Democrats nationwide are hungry to flip House seats. They are even hungrier to do it in ruby red districts like this one, which dips down from Rock Hill into Sumter and 11 other northern and central South Carolina counties.

Already, Parnell's campaign has raised nearly $340,000 since he announced in October he would try again, according to year-end figures filed with the Federal Election Commission.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last week added the 5th District to its "Majority Maker district" list of GOP-held districts the group is targeting. Southern Democrats in December told RollCall this race could lead to an upset similar to U.S Sen. Doug Jones' surprise victory in Alabama.

But can Parnell actually win? It's possible, some say.

"Archie Parnell's best shot at beating Ralph Norman was in that special election, but Archie Parnell has a plausible chance to defeat Ralph Norman and Donald Trump in 2018," Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said. "The dynamics of the race in the 5th have completely changed."

When Parnell lost, he came within about 3 percentage points of beating Norman in a district previously held by now-White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney. In 2016, Mulvaney handily defeated Democrat Fran Person, a former aide to Vice President Joe Biden, by 20 percentage points. 

Republicans, Huffmon said, won't budge in this district. However, Huffmon said Parnell's potential success this time could depend on whether his campaign can convince independents and women to vote for him.

"In national polling, these groups have been tracking further and further way from Trump," Huffmon said. "If Archie Parnell paints Ralph Norman as being lock-step with Trump and, if (Trump's) trend with women continues, then Parnell's formula then becomes boosting turnout among women voters and independents way above the 2016 level."

S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson said he believes the votes are Parnell's to win.

"I'm telling you there is a path to victory, and it lies in northern Lancaster County (a bedroom community to Charlotte), and there are independent swing voters," Robertson said. 

Robertson said he believes it because he has seen it. While running the 2000 campaign for U.S. Rep. John Spratt, a Democrat who presided over the 5th District for years before losing to Mulvaney in 2010, Robertson remembers a precinct in Lancaster that Spratt always lost. Determined, Robertson said he and Spratt went to the precinct's annual yard sale.

"I put some leaflets out, and he bought every cake in the entire place and put them all in the back of his car. We won that precinct, and we won because we communicated," Robertson said. "A well-thought-out campaign can win, and Archie can win."

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Clemson University political science professor David Woodard isn't so sure. Woodard, who has been involved in GOP politics for about 25 years, was a consultant for Norman's first congressional campaign in 2006. Ever since Mulvaney won the district in 2010, Woodard said the 5th has remained conservative and predicts it will stay that way.

The Cook Political Report ranks the district seat as "solid Republican" ahead of the 2018 elections.

"The blue wave won't wash over Ralph Norman," Woodard said. "He's a very formidable candidate."

S.C. GOP Party Chairman Drew McKissick said even with Norman's stronghold among Republicans in the district, every election must be taken seriously.

"We don't take any race for granted. No matter how blue or how red the district might be," McKissick said. "There are only two ways to run a race: To run unopposed or to run like you're 10 points down. Congressman Norman has done a great job of representing conservative philosophy, and I know he will bring a competitive attitude to his campaign."

But Woodard admits the growing frustration people have with both Republicans and Trump is real, and Norman closely aligned himself with Trump when he went to Washington.

Still, Woodard said he does not think the anti-Trump sentiment is large enough in South Carolina for Norman to lose his seat.

"He's like the New England Patriots: They might lose on Sunday, but probably not," Woodard said.

Filing for the seat opens at noon on March 15.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.