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GOP Infighting Over Health Care Spills Onto Campaign Trail

South Carolina state Rep. Tommy Pope speaks as the state legislature debates a bill calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from the state Capitol grounds in 2015.

Republican worries over congressional special elections haven't entirely reached South Carolina's 5th District — yet.

At a GOP candidate forum Thursday night in Rock Hill, five of the candidates vying to succeed former Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who left to direct the White House's Office of Management and Budget, were virtually united on most major issues facing their party and in their praise of President Trump.

"If you liked Mick Mulvaney's votes, you'll like my votes. If you liked [former Sen.] Jim DeMint's votes, you'll love my votes," said former state Rep. Ralph Norman, seen as one of two frontrunners for the GOP nomination by most observers in the district.

In an interview after the forum, Norman was effusive in his praise of the president, giving him a grade of "A++" for his first almost 100 days in office.

Norman stressed repeatedly he would be a congressman much in the mold of Mulvaney and would consider joining the Freedom Caucus if elected. If he'd been in Congress, he would have opposed the GOP health care replacement bill last month, echoing many of the Freedom Caucus's concerns that the bill didn't do enough to repeal the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare.

Norman casts a similar profile as Trump — he's head of a major real-estate company in the area and hails from York County, the largest in the district and where the lion's share of GOP votes are expected to come from in the May 2 primary.

"I'm not a trial lawyer," Norman told voters on Thursday night. "If you need a job, come see Warren Norman Company."

That was a not-so-subtle dig by Norman at his chief rival in the seven-candidate field, state House Speaker Pro Tempore Tommy Pope.

Ideology versus pragmatism

Pope is a former prosecutor in the area who gained fame for leading the 1995 case against Susan Smith, who was sentenced to life in prison after being accused of drowning her two young children in her car.

"I'm the same guy you've known all these years that protected you in your community," Pope told voters in his opening statement. "That's the values I'll take to Washington."

During his comments at the forum, Pope struck a pragmatic conservative tone. He wouldn't commit to how he would have voted on the health care replacement bill since he hadn't seen all of it.

"If there's a better way to remove more [of Obamacare], I'm for it," Pope told NPR afterward. "If that's the best that we can get, and I was there, then I would support it, but I want to make sure that's the case."

Unlike Norman, he was more hesitant in talking about joining with the Freedom Caucus, saying, "I don't want to give up my right or my obligation to the people I represent to think independently on each and every vote."

Norman and Pope cast the largest shadow over the race, and are the favorites to advance to a likely May 16 GOP runoff.

There were three other candidates at the Thursday forum — attorney Kris Wampler, who espoused several libertarian views on issues; education activist Sherri Few, who's running to the right of the pack and had launched a controversial ad hitting Norman and Pope for voting to take the Confederate flag down from in front of the State House after a racially-motivated June 2015 shooting at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston that killed nine African-American parishioners; and Ray Craig, who arrived late to the forum, and had primaried Mulvaney unsuccessfully last year for being too far to the right.

South Carolina state Guard Commander Tom Mullikin didn't attend, and Republicans in the district note he's skipped most GOP-only forums. He has also been pilloried by his rivals for his past donations to Democrats.

Former South Carolina GOP Chairman Chad Connelly missed the Thursday event due to illness. If there is a surprise in who sneaks into the runoff, local observers say it could be Connelly, who hails from the outskirts of the district near Newberry but has built good relationships with the evangelical community in the state after working with the Republican National Committee on outreach to faith groups. He recently netted the endorsement of Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., and also has South Carolina Rep. Jeff Duncan's backing.

But for the most part, the race is shaping up to be a somewhat bitter battle between Pope and Norman, and Republicans in the district say Norman's gone hard after Pope on some of his spending votes — attacks which he revived on Thursday night. They're both fighting for the same base of voters in York County.

An opening for Democrats?

There's some hope among Democrats that whoever emerges from that battle would be bloodied heading into the June 20 runoff election, giving them an opening.

Still, even though the district is slightly less Republican than the one in Kansas that gave the GOP late heartburn last week — voters here picked Trump by almost 19 points, while voters in Kansas voted for the president by 27 points — there isn't the same combination of a toxic governor and an untested candidate that could make it as ripe for an upset.

Glenn McCall is a former York County GOP chairman who now serves as an RNC National Committeeman, and says while Republicans can't take the race for granted, the same anti-Trump messaging won't necessarily work here.

"Folks support Trump, especially in the district and, and are just so happy that Mick Mulvaney is part of the administration," McCall said.

Steve LaCarter of Fort Mill was one of the few people among the about 200 who came out to the Thursday forum who wasn't wearing a sticker for either Norman or Pope. He said he had some ideas of which was he was leaning in the GOP primary as a whole, but that he would definitely be voting Republican regardless of who the nominee was.

For him, the anti-Trump messaging was a non-starter.

"I think he's still learning," LaCarter said of Trump, admitting he wished he would tweet less but gave the president a "B" so far in the White House. "I don't think he came to Washington the way other politicians came to Washington. I think he's a lot more open minded pragmatic type person than the typical politicians that comes up there."

The Trump factor: 'The Trumpiest of the Trumpsters'

Winthrop University political science professor Scott Huffmon also directs the school's statewide poll, which just found the president's approval rating slightly underwater in South Carolina — 43 percent approve and 47 percent disapprove — though that's slightly better than he is nationally.

Trump still remains heavily popular with GOP base voters, though, and those are the ones these candidates need to win over in the primary.

"All these candidates who are running toward Trump to appeal to the base within the base — who votes in a special election primary — is the right thing to do," Huffmon said.

But, if the president's approval drops in the state and Republican voters aren't motivated to turn out, that could turn out to be a problem for candidates aligning themselves so closely with Trump, even in a deeply red district.

"Once you've proven to the base that that you're the Trumpiest of the Trumpsters and that they should elect you, going into the general election, where Trump's support is clearly lower, that makes it difficult to navigate," Huffmon added.

That's the hope of Democrat Archie Parnell, the frontrunner in his primary. He's lined up the support of former Democratic Rep. John Spratt, the former Budget Committee Chairman Mulvaney defeated in the 2010 GOP wave; former Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges; and other major Democrats in the state.

A former tax attorney for the Department of Justice and the House Ways and Means Committee, Parnell went on to work in the tax division of Goldman Sachs before returning to his native Sumter, in the southern corner of the district. Bespectacled and professorial-looking, he was wont to dive into intricacies of the complex U.S. tax code during a Thursday morning interview at his hotel before hitting the campaign trail that day.

Like many Democrats, he was spurred by Trump's election into getting off the sidelines, and after attending the Women's March in D.C. with his wife and daughter the day after the president's inauguration, he decided to jump into the race.

Now, after the close Kansas contest and a possible upset in Georgia looming on Tuesday, Parnell says his campaign has seen an uptick in donations and attention as another possible way to send a message to Trump.

"We can send a sonic boom-type signal, not only to the country, but to the world, that the voters in South Carolina want a change and think that things are going off the rails," said Parnell.

Parnell has to win his own primary first though on May 2, against Army veteran Alexis Frank and Marine veteran Les Murphy. And a background like his is one that has triggered outrage in the past from the more progressive wing of the party aligned with Bernie Sanders, decrying ties to corporate interests and big banks.

"I don't know how the Bernie people are treating that race," said Huffmon, the Winthrop political scientist. "I think that otherwise Parnell would be a head-and-shoulders favorite."

Parnell says his experience should be an advantage, not a disadvantage, particularly with Democratic voters, and he's looking to cast himself in the fiscal model of Spratt, who represented the area for almost 30 years.

The 5th district is also home to many Northern retirees like Paula and John Bourgeois, who moved to Rock Hill three years ago from New York. They were at the GOP forum, but were maybe the only independent voters there, and some of the issues they said they were interested in, such as gun control and funding for Planned Parenthood, weren't exactly atop the GOP candidates' priority list.

They said they came out to learn more about all the candidates and were undecided who they would vote for or for which party. Last November, they were both somewhat reluctant Hillary Clinton voters and now were certainly no fans of Trump.

While they said they have plenty of neighbors from other places who have also moved recently from places like New Jersey and Ohio, Paula said she was doubtful that a Democrat could win here just yet.

"Years down the road when you have more Northerners coming down, maybe it will change," she said.

As to whether there could be a similar "sonic boom," as Parnell called it, against Trump come June, Paula Bourgeois was highly skeptical.

"I don't know about here, maybe other parts of the country, maybe."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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