He didn’t build a nationwide army of liberal small donors. He didn’t brandish any weaponry. He had no experience in elective politics. Yet out of the four Democrats nominated in U.S. House special elections this year, Archie Parnell came the closest to snagging a Republican-held seat.
Haven’t heard of Archie Parnell? That may be because he never got the kind of national media attention of Georgia’s Jon Ossoff, the boy wonder of the Atlanta suburbs, or Rob Quist, the singing cowboy of Montana. Even James Thompson, who lost a surprisingly close Kansas House race in April, got more ink.
But it’s Parnell, the mild-mannered, globetrotting tax attorney from Sumter, South Carolina, who came closest to shocking the political system—falling just 3.2 percentage points and 2,836 votes short on Tuesday night. And he did it on the cheap. While Ossoff spent $30 million to lose the most expensive House race in history, Parnell reported spending of slightly more than a half-million through the end of May.
How did he do it? By staying out of the line of fire. He was positive. He was humble. And Republicans barely knew he was there.
In a political landscape ravaged by vicious partisan warfare, Parnell spent more time mocking himself than attacking his opponent. One ad showed him chucking an airball on the basketball court and awkwardly holding a baby while admitting, “I’m not a sensational athlete. I don’t have movie-star good looks. And I’m no politician.”
In a culture saturated in Trumpian bravado, he promised not to overpromise. The spot “Deliver” begins like an action movie trailer, with a narrator booming, “He’s the one man who’ll solve all your problems … and bring Clemson and Carolina fans together!” Parnell cuts him off with an incredulous, “Wait, what?” Then, after ticking off his goals in Congress, he says, “I won’t promise you the world, but I will work every day to make your life better.”
And in a time where wonky expertise is often derided, he insisted, “I know enough about the U.S. tax code to absolutely bore you to tears.” To which his beleaguered wife would respond, “You have no idea.”
Every Democratic congressional candidate this year implicitly presented themselves as a type of anti-Trump. Kansas’ Thompson was a working-class veteran. Montana’s Quist had the guitar thing and the cowboy hat. Ossoff was a buttoned-down, tech-savvy millennial. But Parnell got the most mileage out of being a cuddly budget nerd.
The four also diverged when it came to the simmering Democratic civil war between Bernie Sanders populists and Hillary Clinton pragmatists. Thompson and Quist happily received Sanders’ direct help, with Quist going the farthest in embracing the Vermont senator’s progressive platform (he supported Sanders’ signature “single-payer” health care plan). But the Western duo went easy on Trump, hoping to win back his working-class voters.
Ossoff, the only one of the four to run in a district where Trump received less than 50 percent of the vote in 2016, ran the most ads directly critical of the president. But Ossoff’s main message was aimed at the district’s upscale right-leaning voters, with an emphasis on “cutting wasteful spending” and attracting “high-tech jobs.”
Parnell also largely took a moderate path in his quest for the seat Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney won by 20 points last November. He eschewed Sanders’ ambitious planks on single-payer and stiff wealth taxes while sticking with standard Democratic talking points on closing corporate tax loopholes and fixing, not repealing, Obamacare.
Parnell also embraced his corporate resume, which included a long stint in Hong Kong as a Goldman Sachs executive. When his Republican opponent criticized him for spending so much time abroad, Parnell did not pander to nationalist sentiment: “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.”
Parnell did not scramble far to the right. He dared to support a gun-control measure, closing the so-called “Charleston loophole” that allows gun sales to proceed if an FBI background check isn’t completed in three days. And while he did not spend much time attacking Trump, his most viewed online video, a spoof of “House of Cards,” shows Parnell breaking from his Frank Underwood impression to say, “The president of the United States fired the FBI director … that actually happened, it’s not on the show.”
How did Parnell almost get away with all that in the deep red South Carolina fifth congressional district? By laying low.
With all the attention on Ossoff, Parnell never got blitzed by a multi-million dollar attack campaign. He was not yoked to Nancy Pelosi. He was not accused of being in league with Kathy Griffin and the congressional shooter.
Republicans were asleep at the switch. Turnout was abysmal. Parnell’s raw vote total, buoyed by the district’s African-American precincts, was 60 percent less than the fifth district’s Democratic nominee last November. Why was the race was so close? Because Republican nominee Ralph Norman fared even worse, suffering a 72 percent collapse.
In Georgia, the months of all-out war activated partisan armies. Republican Karen Handel’s decline from her GOP predecessor was a relatively modest 33 percent. Ossoff was the only candidate in any of the special elections this year to roughly match what his party’s previous nominee garnered in November, coming up just 24 votes shy of Rodney Stooksbury’s 2016 total. (Ossoff’s vote share of 48.1 percent was also slightly higher than Hillary Clinton’s performance in the district: 46.8 percent.)
Sometimes political operatives hope to drive down turnout with relentlessly negative campaigns. But on Tuesday, negativity drove turnout up, and it doesn’t appear to be a fluke. On the Republican side, Norman’s turnout drop resembled what Ron Estes got in his relatively sleepy affair in Kansas. But Handel’s smaller decline was almost exactly the same as Montana’s Greg Gianforte, who committed assault the day before the election.
When some progressives lambasted the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for abandoning Thompson in Kansas, a party official defended staying out on the grounds that it would be “extremely damaging” to make the race “nationalized.” The timidity was widely mocked. Slate’s Jim Newell concluded, “it doesn’t say much good about your party’s health if this ridiculous strategy is the consensus approach.” But Parnell’s near-miss suggests the DCCC, which quietly chipped in $275,000 to the South Carolina special, was on to something.
We live in polarizing times, and our country is led by the most polarizing president in history. Once a race makes it into the national spotlight, partisan battle lines are drawn and tribal loyalties kick in. Every Democrat this year outperformed his predecessor, but by stoking Democratic enthusiasm, not by winning many Republican converts. And that was not sufficient to poach a GOP district. Flying under the radar was the best shot anyone had this year. One lesson learned: Sometimes the professionals in Washington know more than the laptop field marshals.
But this year is not next year. To Newell’s point, Democrats can’t fly under the radar everywhere all the time. The 2018 midterm will be an unavoidable referendum on Trump. That will be welcomed by the 23 Democratic candidates chasing Republican-held House seats in districts won by Clinton, but unnerving to the 12 Democratic representatives trying to hang on in Trump country. And Democrats can’t net only 11 seats if they want to win control of the House. They need 24.
Limp turnout and internal divisions among Republicans may get Democrats the rest of the way. But Democrats can’t feel confident relying solely on their opponent’s weaknesses. They will want to strengthen their own national party’s image, knowing that most of their House and Senate candidates will be judged by it.
Parnell’s success, relative to Quist and Thompson, suggests that a fire-breathing populism is not a silver-bullet solution for Democratic woes. But Ossoff’s expensive fizzle shows that separating affluent, college-educated right-leaning moderates from the Republican Party is no simple task, either. The Democrats end the House special election season with little guidance as to how exactly the party should define itself for 2018.