Donald Trump’s approval numbers are faltering, he’s lashing out on Twitter and he’s reportedly facing an obstruction of justice probe.
None of that matters to Ralph Norman, the Republican frontrunner in South Carolina’s special House election.
At a campaign stop with retirees and at a fundraiser with physicians, at a GOP dinner and in an interview with McClatchy, Norman was vocal in his support for Trump in the lead-up to Tuesday’s special election—a reminder of the embattled president’s continued potency with the GOP base in the country’s many conservative districts.
“I’m in it because I think now’s a special time,” said Norman, unprompted, three minutes into his speech during an afternoon meet-and-greet at a stately old gabled house here in Winnsboro this week. “We can talk about President Trump going in. I’m excited about serving with him.”
Despite the swirling investigations and controversies surrounding the Trump administration, the conservative base remains strongly, and defensively, in the president’s corner, a dynamic vividly on display here in the Fifth District.
Unless and until that changes in districts like this across the country, strategists say, it’s unlikely Trump will see significant backlash from lawmakers in his own party, no matter how rough the storyline or how intense the frustrations of those Republicans who worry about a bad national environment for the party headed into 2018, fueled by the president’s unpopularity.
“It’s safe to run to Trump in that district, for the most part. The outlier would be a Republican right now who’s not running to Trump,” said Chip Felkel, a veteran South Carolina Republican strategist. “In districts like SC-5, candidates and incumbents are going to gravitate toward the Trump administration until poll numbers suggest it’s at their own peril.”
The special election to replace now-Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney has gone little-noticed compared to the nail-biter race unfolding in Georgia on the same day, in a more moderate district where Trump is a much bigger liability. But the contest here, in a district that stretches from just south of Charlotte, N.C., through Rock Hill and down to the Columbia capital region, will offer a test of the Republican base’s energy five months into this polarizing president’s term, at a time when Democrats are eager to expand their map.
Norman, a real estate developer and deeply conservative former state representative, is heavily favored to win. He is competing against Democrat Archie Parnell, a wonkish, low-key attorney who spent a significant portion of his career overseas with Goldman Sachs, though on the trail his style is less worldly than it is wide-eyed, enthusiastic and earnest.
For Norman, the fear is that turnout will be low, in part because families are taking off on summer vacation, and in part because voters assume that the election has already happened. In reality, the GOP primary earlier this year went to a bitter runoff, and he eked out a win over the more moderate Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope, with both candidates competing over who could align themselves more closely with Trump.
It’s a tactic Norman continues to employ in the general election, and Trump has recorded a robocall designed to boost his campaign.
“If he does nothing else…what [Trump] did with Neil Gorsuch told me what he was about,” Norman said at a party dinner Friday night, echoing former Sen. Jim DeMint, who in introductory remarks also praised Trump’s nomination of Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. “It told me what his heart was. For those who said, is he conservative, is he not conservative, folks, Donald Trump is a conservative. He put somebody to be in there for life.”
The room burst into applause.
Norman, who campaigns like an old-school, gregarious southern pol, with a syrupy drawl and strong yard sign game, doesn’t even object to Trump’s Twitter habit, the one thing other GOP lawmakers have generally felt comfortable criticizing.
“The tweets are not popular,” allowed Norman in an interview—though he stressed that he has no problem with them. “People can read a tweet or they can’t read a tweet. If they don’t want to receive it, they don’t have to. He’s got millions of followers. I see no problem with it. The majority of people think it’s inciting opposition to him. I’m fine with it. Other than that, they’re excited about what he did with the Supreme Court, excited about the fact that he’s trying to rein in government.”
Indeed, in interviews, voters often blamed the media first and Democrats second for many of Trump’s troubles. At the retiree-heavy gathering here in Winnsboro, over pimento cheese and wine, one woman launched into a lament about the divisions in politics. But it quickly became clear that in her view, only one side should shoulder the blame.
“Most of the time there can always be a common ground on some issues,” she said. “Do you think at this point that so many Democrats are anti-Trump that they’re just not going to concede on any compromise?”
“Well, it’s going to be tough,” Norman replied, pointing to the Kathy Griffin controversy. “But for the good of the country we’ve got to come together, and hopefully they will.”
And in setting after setting, voters indicated they are uninterested in the investigations surrounding Trump. That includes the examination of potential ties between Russia and his campaign, and the news this week that special counsel Robert Mueller is exploring whether the president may have obstructed justice.
At worst, they think the whole thing is a ploy concocted by the media and sore-loser Democrats.
“I don’t think Russia leads to him,” said Jim Welsh, a doctor from Rock Hill and old basketball partner of Norman’s.
In the interview with McClatchy, Norman made clear that he takes Russia seriously and believes Mueller is credible, with an “impeccable background.” But he also charged the media with overhyping the probes.
“He’s presumed guilty,” Norman said. “Let them come up with some hard facts and present the case, but I almost think they’ve judged him before they’ve found anything.”
Certainly, it’s not that Trump is immune to backlash even here. Several voters interviewed, including a co-host of the Winnsboro event, Pam Laird, expressed annoyance with Trump’s Twitter habit.
Katon Dawson, the former chairman of the South Carolina GOP, said that the onslaught of negative developments for Trump is poised to take a toll everywhere, including in deep-red districts like this one, just as it has in Georgia and, earlier this year, in Kansas.
“The difference is the margins,” he said. “It’s going to be tighter than normal because of Trump’s ratings right now.”
The question, for many political observers, is how tight. Norman acknowledges that if he wins but the race is close—"A win's a win but we need to win this by seven, eight points at least, not four or five"—Democrats will sense an opportunity to invest in future races here.
Felkel said that anything under a 15-point spread should have people "scratch[ing] their heads;" Norman said he won't win by that much.
But in what is expected to be a low-turnout election, Norman’s team says he simply needs the Trump voters to show up.
“If Republicans, known, hard Republicans just go to the polls, remember June 20 is an election day, we’ll be just fine,” said Walter Whetsell, a top adviser to Norman’s campaign, noting that Trump won the district by 18 percentage points.
Parnell is trying to play the same turnout game, though the numbers are tougher for a Democrat. Michael Wukela, Parnell’s communications director, said that Parnell still has a path to victory, fueled by core Democratic constituencies, including African Americans and “working families.”
Wukela also said Parnell—who has expressed willingness to work with Trump at times—could attract support from more moderate Republicans who supported Pope in the primary and runoff. And he is seeking to engage veterans, an often-conservative group.
“There is some disquiet with Trump,” Parnell said in an interview in Rock Hill before he gamely walked into a clearly Republican-heavy Veterans of Foreign Wars hall. “I talk with people that will say things ranging from, ‘things are seemingly running off the tracks,’ sometimes people put it that way, other times there are a lot of people that say to me, ‘oh, I’m frightened with what’s going on.’”
Nationally, that’s exactly the dynamic that scares Republicans. But Norman is focused on another problem facing the party: pressure to get something done. Republicans control every branch of government, but passing priority legislation, such as an Obamacare repeal or tax reform, has proved difficult.
“They’ll lose patience pretty quick” if the Republican Party doesn’t land legislative achievements, Norman said of voters. “The same could be said if the Democrats had control. They don’t.”