Republican U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman and his Democratic challenger Archie Parnell disagreed on tariffs, a border wall and potential drilling off the South Carolina coast during their first debate Wednesday.
The pair stayed away from 40-year-old domestic violence accusations against Parnell. But it was Norman’s opening joke which ended up getting attention after the debate ended.
The debate at the Kiwanis Club of Rock Hill was the first of the 2018 election cycle between the two rivals, who also squared off in the 2017 special election which first put Norman in the seat. Norman ended up winning the election by just 2,800 votes in a heavily-contested race.
Democrats were excited for a chance to run Parnell again, but a lot has changed since last year. Parnell is operating with a much smaller campaign budget this time, as many of his own party leaders and staff abandoned him in May, accusing him of not being honest about the domestic violence he has admitted occurred during his first marriage in the early 1970s. Parnell has since apologized and said he is a different man now, with a healthier, second marriage.
Meanwhile, Norman has shifted away from the libertarian positions he held in the Statehouse to become a defender of President Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods, which he initially opposed. An opening joke he made during his introduction overshadowed the debate.
Norman asked if the audience had heard the latest breaking news from the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, then joked (Supreme Court Justice) “Ruth Bader Ginsburg came out and said she was groped by Abraham Lincoln,” a reference to the accusations made against Kavanaugh and a dig at the 85-year-old Ginsburg. Some in the audience laughed.
Democrats slammed the remarks, with the party’s South Carolina chairman Trav Robertson tweeting, “Ralph Norman just proved he may be rich but he doesn’t have any class.” Even the national Kiwanis organization distanced itself from the joke, saying Norman’s comments “do not reflect” its values.
Norman was unapologetic afterward, saying the comment was meant as a joke. “My comments earlier today were meant to add a bit of levity to a very serious debate between me and my Democrat opponent and to point to the circus-like atmosphere that Washington DC has become,” he said in a statement. “People really need to learn to lighten up.”
However, Parnell’s own domestic violence history puts Democrats in an awkward position. Robertson himself had called on his own party’s nominee to drop out of the race after a series of reports by the Charleston Post & Courier revealed Parnell’s record of physical violence against his first wife.
In terms of policy, the candidates disagreed on whether President Donald Trump’s tariffs are the best way to deal with Chinese trade practices. Norman defended the president’s tariffs, saying other countries use them against the U.S. “This president has stopped letting America be the doormat for the rest of the world,” he said.
However, Parnell said tariffs increase the cost of the final good for consumers. He also said government was “picking winners and losers” by choosing which tariffs to enforce. He noted that one such waiver was given to Winnsboro TV manufacturer Element Electronics, which had said it would likely be forced to close if it did not get the exemption.
Parnell criticized the president’s push for a border wall and threats to shut down the government if Congress will not fund it, calling the wall a “15th Century idea” and that using millions to build the structure for a “political purpose was nonsense.”
Norman said he supports opening up the ocean floor off the Carolinas to search for oil or natural gas. The Trump administration has taken steps to allow survey teams to obtain permits for the search. Norman argued more energy options were needed to reduce the country’s reliance on foreign oil. Parnell criticized what he considered a lack of environmental concerns by the administration.