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Last night's South Carolina special election is a danger sign for House Republicans

Ralph Norman
Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Just 230 miles northeast of the race where Republican Karen Handel emerged victorious in a Georgia special election, another Republican celebrated a narrower victory Tuesday night — in a lesser-noticed race that might give Democrats a glimmer of hope.

For the GOP, it was business as usual: Republican Ralph Norman, a former state representative and real estate developer, beat Democrat Archie Parnell, a former Goldman Sachs tax attorney, in South Carolina’s Fifth Congressional District — a special election that no one seemed to be paying much attention to. It was going to be an easy win for the Republican candidate, in a district that has been deeply red since Mick Mulvaney, now the Office of Management and Budget director, won the seat in the Tea Party wave of 2010.

The reality is that Republicans won the seat in name, but Norman is a hardline conservative and a vote in the House that will align with the Freedom Caucus — which has been causing trouble for Republican leadership on every major agenda item.

Norman’s narrow win should be worrying for Republican leadership on two fronts: He’s the anti-establishment conservative candidate who will likely be a thorn in Speaker Paul Ryan’s side, and in a deeply red district, he came awfully close to losing to a Democrat.

Democrats did much better than expected in South Carolina

Democrats should be paying attention what happened in South Carolina. In the lead-up to the election, FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten put it this way:

The closer Norman comes to beating Parnell by 19 points (or more) — the default partisan lean of the district — the better for the Republican Party. A Parnell loss in the low double digits, by contrast, would be consistent with a national shift big enough for Democrats to win the House.

Parnell lost by only 3.2 points, in a surprisingly close race. By contrast, in 2016, Mulvaney carried the district by 20 points and Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 18.5 points.

Other than going briefly viral for being House of Cards character Frank Underwood’s fictional district — a story Parnell tried to capitalize on with House of Cardsthemed campaign videos — the race didn’t receive anything close to the national attention that was directed toward Georgia or even Montana.

Tuesday night will almost certainly be an inflection point for the national Democratic Party. The Georgia special election reveals a lot about candidate recruitment, mobilization, and the strength of national parties. As Vox’s Jeff Stein explained, it showed that the Republican Party still has “powerful tools for beating back Democratic challengers, including appeals to an in-group identity and an avalanche of dark-money attack ads.”

But it wasn’t necessarily a ringing endorsement of Trump or Ryan’s agenda either. Rather, together, the two special elections are a strong indication that both major parties are going to need to do some soul searching.

Republicans won. But Norman isn’t necessarily on Ryan’s side.

Ryan was likely smiling Tuesday night. There’s a lot he should be happy with — Republicans defended all four of the seats vacated for Trump’s administration, and those victories will likely take the edge off party members who were worried about pushing their unpopular agenda.

But Norman isn’t going to make Ryan’s life any easier. In fact, the Republican establishment in South Carolina poured a lot of money into stopping Norman from becoming the Republican candidate for the seat. The US Chamber of Commerce invested roughly $700,000 against Norman, according to Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC). Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), who has close ties to House leadership, threw his support behind Norman’s primary opponent, establishment Republican Tommy Pope.

It was all to no avail.

Norman, the conservative candidate, was funded through the House Freedom Fund and committed to joining the Freedom Caucus — the House’s most conservative caucus, which has proved to be a thorn in House leadership’s side. That means the Freedom Caucus can replace Mulvaney in their ranks.

Even with two wins last night, Republicans’ problems aren’t going away. Faced with a divided party, which already struggled to get a health care bill through the House and seems to be poised for yet another inter-party battle over tax reform, Ryan has been struggling to find a way to get the Republican Party’s congressional agenda back on track.

The Freedom Caucus has a lot of leverage: They control roughly 40 votes. (Republicans can only afford to lose 22 before they give up control of the House.) The Freedom Caucus is willing to buck leadership’s vision — and Norman’s victory shows the conservatives can hold the line.