What Parnell Did in South Carolina to Make it a Close Race

One thing that hasn’t been mentioned about the two special elections on Tuesday is that they both happened in states that are the heart of the Southern Confederacy. Perhaps that’s because they took place in districts that had been gerrymandered to maximize the white vote. But as Jason Johnson points out, that doesn’t mean that racial dynamics weren’t involved.

In the South—even the “educated” suburban South of a teeming multicultural metropolis like Atlanta—racial dynamics and party dynamics overlap in inescapable ways. White people generally don’t vote for the Democratic Party in Georgia, or any other Southern state. The idea that a coalition of educated suburban whites would actually team up with black voters to send a message to Donald Trump from Georgia was a fantasy created by the blue screen and CGI of outside Democratic analysts who want a happy ending to the Trump narrative in eight months.

In Georgia’s 6th District, African Americans are only about 13 percent of the population. But in South Carolina’s 5th District, they make up almost 30 percent. Not many media outlets reported on what happened in that race until Archie Parnell beat the odds against Ralph Norman and lost by only 3 percent. Here’s what made it unique:

Much of the commentary on the left about this race has involved the kinds of dualities that have consumed those still caught up in the Clinton/Sanders primary. While some have attempted to propose various reasons why Parnell did so much better than expected, they have mostly ignored what Democrats and the candidate actually set out to do.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the biggest outside contributor to the race, has spent $275,000 to test a host of messages aimed at driving black voters to the polls. The results, officials say, will inform Democratic turnout efforts in African-American communities in the 2018 elections.

“We’re aiming to try to get out 40,000 voters from the African-American community, and with that we’d be in a good place to win,” Mr. Parnell said. “No one knows how many people are going to vote. Whether we’ll be successful, time will tell.”

Mr. Parnell has spent his 15-week campaign in black churches, barber shops and community events arguing that Mr. Trump is reversing the legacy of President Barack Obama. He speaks regularly about the Affordable Care Act’s protections for diabetes and heart disease, ailments that disproportionately affect the black community, and the high incarceration rate of black South Carolinians.

“There is more excitement and more activity regarding this election than we’ve had in a long time,” said Melvin Poole, a former president of the NAACP chapter in Rock Hill, S.C.

Here’s the results of that strategy:

Ruthven went on to tweet that, “Archie Parnell increased black votes and made inroads with whites, that’s why it was close. That’s the Southern Democrat Holy Grail.”

While it is discouraging that Parnell lost, this is exactly what Democrats need to be doing in districts like South Carolina’s 5th. One size does not fit all and it probably wouldn’t have helped much in Georgia’s 6th. But I hope that the lessons learned from Parnell’s race are chronicled and then implemented again in 2018 in places where African American turnout can make the difference. Simply assuming that without Barack Obama at the top of the ticket means that Democrats have to look elsewhere for votes doesn’t cut it.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.