COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Tuesday’s Republican runoff for the House seat Rep. Mick Mulvaney vacated to join the Trump administration has exposed a breach in the party that’s so wide, some GOP voters are threatening to stay home.
The two candidates are alike in many ways, but one is backed by business groups with mainstream appeal, while the other gets support from hard-right groups that reject compromise.
Despite the similarities between Tommy Pope — the top vote-getter on May 2 — and Ralph Norman, who trailed him by less than 1 percent in the first round, some GOP voters say they can’t fathom backing the other Republican, even against a Democrat, in the general election on June 20.
South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District spans 11 mostly rural counties where Republicans dominate after state GOP leaders changed the boundaries to draw it more safely under their party’s control.
It’s the same district held by the fictional Democratic politician Frank Underwood in the first season of “House of Cards” on Netflix, and had been in Democratic hands for more than 100 years until Mulvaney’s victory in 2010.
Similar boundary shifts in many states have effectively shrunk the middle ground and made it harder for politicians to reach across party lines. It’s the same in the 5th, where Norman has tried to stay on Pope’s right flank through the Republican primary.
Both voice support for some of President Donald Trump’s policies in TV ads and campaign planks, including a border wall with Mexico and efforts to loosen regulations on businesses. Both pledged to get rid of President Obama’s health care law.
The main difference is who backs them: Pope, an attorney from York and the No. 2 in South Carolina’s House, has the support of several high-profile state Republicans, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and dozens of law enforcement leaders, including fellow former prosecutor U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy.
Norman, a real estate developer, former state House member and major backer of Nikki Haley, counts on support from the party’s right flank, including the Club For Growth’s political arm, Jim DeMint, and Sen. Ted Cruz, who campaigned with him Monday.
Any hint of working with centrists is precisely what one Norman supporter doesn’t want in Congress.
“You can work with the far left, you can work with the far right, but you can’t work with the middle because you don’t know how they are going to vote,” voter Margarett Blackwell told The Associated Press, quoting advice she said she got from Mulvaney himself.
Blackwell, 76, supported Pope’s 2010 state House campaign, helping flip the district from Democrat to Republican. But she’s so disillusioned with Pope’s willingness to compromise with moderates to raise the state’s gas tax for the first time in 30 years that she says she may stay home in June if Pope is the GOP nominee.
Mike Barrow, a 71-year-old Army veteran, has the same bad feeling about Norman.
“I’ve got four or five friends with the same problem,” said Barrow, saying Norman’s endorsements from Washington personalities like Cruz and DeMint go against their desire to be represented by outsiders.
The winner faces Democrat Archie Parnell, a former tax adviser with Goldman Sachs and staff attorney for the House Ways & Means Committee and the Department of Justice, whose top priorities are tax reform and job creation.
Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson said he anticipates the Republican who emerges will make a sharp turn toward the middle.
“At 7:05 tomorrow night, you’re going to see just how quickly either Tommy Pope or Ralph Norman become a hypocrite,” Robertson said Monday. “They’re going to shift all of their policies and beliefs to the center, because the 5th District is a center on the political spectrum.”