Sen. Lindsey Graham, is a big deal in Washington. He is chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, media-savvy Republican leader and golf partner of President Trump, Graham commands attention and wields influence on Capitol Hill on everything from national defense to confirmation of judges.
But back home in South Carolina, the Republican is surprisingly politically vulnerable. He’s facing a well-funded Democrat, Jaime Harrison, who has dominated the airwaves with ads about his life story of overcoming poverty. He’s painted Graham as a politician “living large” while South Carolinians suffer. “What happened to Lindsey Graham?” one ad says.
The rise of a viable Democratic challenger, Graham’s high-profile embrace of Trump, the COVID-19 crisis and Black Lives Matter unrest have all combined to create a perfect storm. Graham is in his toughest fight yet to win reelection, according to South Carolina political experts.
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“We may be an election away from a Democrat having an upset [in GOP-leaning South Carolina], but I will say that Jaime Harrison is closer than a Democrat has been in a while for such an upset to occur,” said Todd Shaw, associate professor of political science and African American Studies at the University of South Carolina.
A recent poll set off alarms by showing Harrison tied with Graham in South Carolina, a GOP stronghold that hasn’t elected a Democrat statewide since 2006, and that was for the Superintendent of Education.
Graham “has been a firebrand advocate for national defense and a leader of his party for 17 years, but has Lindsey Graham’s allegiance to the president put him in jeopardy?” Quinnipiac University Polling Analyst Tim Malloy said in announcing his polling findings. “The numbers suggest his tenure on the Hill is in trouble.”
But Graham’s campaign says their internal polling shows the Republican is on track to win his fourth term in the Senate. They said Harrison is too liberal for the state and Graham’s priorities are in line with the people of South Carolina.
“This will be a race with very clear choices,” said T.W. Arrighi, communications director for Graham’s reelection campaign. “Socialism versus free enterprise. Defunding the police versus supporting law enforcement. Government-controlled healthcare versus patient-controlled health care. A weakened military versus the strongest military in a generation. While Jaime Harrison may have liberals in California funding his campaign, the people of South Carolina have Senator Graham’s back.”
Graham, a close friend of the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who clashed with Trump, once positioned himself as a fellow maverick who was willing to work across the aisle with Democrats on thorny issues like immigration. Before Trump was elected president, Graham blasted the former reality TV host in 2015 as “a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot.”
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But since Trump ascended to power, Graham made the pragmatic choice of cozying up to Trump and, at times, fiercely defending the president in the face tough criticism. The transformation of Graham has irked some disaffected Republicans and independents who view the change as a betrayal of McCain. And now they have a viable alternative in Harrison.
“After 25 years in Washington, people just can’t recognize him [Graham] anymore,” said Guy King, communications director for Harrison’s campaign. “This is a person who would much rather play political games in Washington than stand up for the issues and the challenges facing South Carolinians every single day.”
Harrison grew up poor in Orangeburg, S.C. the son of a single teenage mom and raised by his grandparents. He overcame the challenges and went on Yale University and Georgetown Law and then got involved in Democratic Party politics.
Harrison is the former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, a former lobbyist and a Democratic National Committee associate chairman.
Danielle Vinson, a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., said Harrison’s attack against the new Graham has been nuanced and effective.
“In South Carolina, you’re not going to win a statewide race by attacking Republicans, per se, they’re the largest voting bloc in the state,” Vinson said. “And so you’ve got to be more nuanced about it and he really has. He’s essentially not condemning the old Lindsey Graham. He’s condemning what we’ve seen in Lindsey Graham the last three and a half years. And I think that’s resonating in certain parts of the state in ways that may surprise Graham.”
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Trump is still popular in South Carolina among Republicans — and the Quinnipiac poll would suggest the president is doing better than Graham statewide. Graham hasn’t shied away from his close relationship with the president and has framed his influence as a positive gain for his constituents.
“Sen. Graham being a close friend and confidante of President Trump is a major positive for South Carolina,” Arrighi said. “It was South Carolina that helped propel Donald Trump to the presidency, and South Carolina will propel him to a second term.”
But the political experts say the recent crises facing the nation — coronavirus, economic downturn and demands for racial justice — have made Graham more vulnerable.
Graham’s campaign says the senator has used his power to address these issues, from holding a hearing on police use of force to authoring a pending bill, the U.S. Made Act, that would bring production of personal protective equipment back to America from China.
“There is no senator who has been more active in addressing the pandemic and reviving our economy than Lindsey Graham,” Arrighi said. “From direct and frank discussions with the president on a regular basis, to meeting with healthcare and local leaders across the state, to introducing several pieces of legislation, Senator Graham is showing – through action – what being a leader is all about. Mr. Harrison hasn’t left his basement in four months.”
Shaw, the University of South Carolina professor, expects Graham will make a late break after the Republican convention with lots of ad spending.
Federal fundraising records show that Harrison raised nearly $29 million in this cycle and has more than $10 million left in the bank. Graham still has the money advantage by raising nearly $31 million and having $15 million in cash on hand.
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Turnout in November is going to be key and political experts predict Democrats will be less tempted to say home this year and assume a GOP win is evitable in South Carolina. If Harrison manages to pull out an upset win, Vinson said it would be a sign of a blue wave election.
“It would be huge and it would be stunning,” Vinson said. “It would spell bad news for Republicans, up and down the coast and across the country. I will still be stunned if it happens. It’s more possible now than I would have thought six months ago, but it still would be shocking.”