This South Carolina Primary Will Test Whether Democrats Are Willing to Overlook Domestic Violence

Because Democratic House frontrunner Archie Parnell says he won’t quit the race.

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For the past year, Archie Parnell, a former Goldman Sachs managing director and former tax attorney for ExxonMobil, has been among the candidates the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee viewed as contenders to fulfill their dreams of a Blue Wave in the 2018 midterms. But last month, divorce records surfaced that show Parnell abused his ex-wife—a revelation that may cost Democrats the race. 

Parnell, who is running for a House seat in South Carolina’s 5th District, has admitted to physically abusing his former wife in 1973, using a tire iron to break into an apartment where her friends were trying to protect her. He then struck her several times and beat her again later that evening. She sought a divorce and a restraining order against him.

Most of Parnell’s staff quit after they learned of the abuse, including campaign manager Yates Baroody. Trav Robertson, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, called on Parnell to drop out of the race, saying “his actions, though long ago, directly contradict the values of the Democratic Party.” The DCCC also withdrew its support—a representative called Parnell’s abuses “inexcusable and deeply disturbing.”

But in a Facebook video posted to his campaign page June 6, Parnell resisted: “After much prayer and thought, I have concluded I should stay in this race.” He sought help after his violent outburst, he argued, and his marriage to his current wife gave him a second chance. “If I withdraw,” he said, “I would be telling anyone who makes a terrible mistake that that one terrible mistake will define them for the rest of their lives.”

Odds are good that Parnell will still win Tuesday’s primary. He has the most name recognition among the Democratic candidates, which include Steven Lough, a former professional clown; Mark Ali, a former undocumented immigrant; and Sidney Moore, a retiree who has held a wide range of jobs over the course of his career. In 2017, Parnell ran in a special election for the open House seat vacated by Mick Mulvaney. He spent a modest half-million dollars and came within about 3 percentage points of victory.

If Parnell does prevail in the primary, he’ll face off against Rep. Ralph Norman, the Republican incumbent who defeated him a year ago. Norman is perhaps best known for pulling out a loaded .38-caliber handgun at a Rock Hill diner to demonstrate that “guns don’t shoot people; people shoot guns”—he then set the gun down on a table and continued his “coffee with the constituents” meeting. Afterward, he said, “I’m not going to be a Gabby Giffords,” referring to the Tucson congresswoman who was shot in the head during a meeting with constituents at a supermarket parking lot. 

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