NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Sen. Lindsey Graham is in the political fight of his life less than a month from Election Day. In this solid Republican state, Graham finds himself in a dead heat with his well-funded Democratic challenger, former state Democratic Chairman Jaime Harrison, who has defied expectations.
South Carolina is rarely a battleground outside of presidential primaries, and the last Democrat the state elected to the Senate was Ernest Hollings, who served from 1966 to 2005. Now Graham’s seat has been put into a growing mix of Republican-held Senate seats that will determine control of the upper chamber for the next two years.
Several factors make the race far more competitive than most thought it would be just six months ago, including a divisive president who is shedding support among women and independents, as well as African American enthusiasm for Harrison and the Democratic presidential ticket.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed the race tied at 48 percent among likely voters, and Cook Political Report changed the race’s outlook Wednesday from “lean Republican” to “toss up.”
And President Donald Trump’s declaration Tuesday that he would no longer support another Covid-19 relief package from Congress was another potential blow to Graham, who tweeted Wednesday urging the president and Senate Republicans to take another look at making a deal.
Through all the noise from the White House, Graham has tried to balance appeals to independent women and to Trump’s base, constituencies that are far part on the issues.
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Graham has wagered that tying himself closely to the president will help his re-election chances. But he is not as popular as the president in the state. In the Quinnipiac poll, 86 percent of Republicans have favorable views of Graham, compared to 93 percent who say they have favorable views of Trump.
Graham’s challenge is to ensure that the most loyal Trump supporters also vote for him, instead of leaving the Senate race blank on their ballots.
Harrison is trying to highlight those divides, flooding the airwaves, especially in parts of the state where conservative voters are more likely to hold Graham’s support for comprehensive immigration reform four years ago against him, as well as his criticism of Trump in 2016, when he famously called Trump a “con man,” among other things.
As of Oct. 1, Harrison and Democratic allies had spent $29 million on television advertising, compared to just $10.7 million by Graham and Republicans, according to ad tracking from Advertising Analytics. And 25 percent of pro-Harrison advertising has been in the northwestern part of the state, which includes Greenville and Spartanburg, where Trump has significant support.
Graham, who is hoping to win his fourth term, hopes his leading role in hearings to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court will help shore up his support among the Republican base and persuade center-right-leaning independents, including women, to back him.
“We’re not going to stop doing our job in Washington as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, I promise you,” Graham said Saturday at the first debate against Harrison at Allen University, a historically Black college in Columbia. “We’re going to get Judge Barrett on the court safely.”
Jack, a voter who would not give his last name, said he continues to support Graham and the push to confirm Barrett ahead of Election Day. “I just think he’s been tried and true,” he said of Graham.
Harrison’s campaign has hit Graham for reversing his pledge not to take up a nomination in an election year, highlighting his now-famous statements about such timing in 2016 and 2018.
“Your promise was that no judicial nominee should be considered or approved or what have you in the last year of an election,” Harrison told Graham during their debate.
He called on Graham to “just be a man of it and stand up and say: ‘You know what? I changed my mind.'”
Travis Holmes, who voted Monday in North Charleston during the first day of in-person absentee voting, said that he has supported Graham in the past but that he voted for Harrison on Monday “because of the flip-flopping.”
“I will vote for Lindsey Graham if he is consistent, but how can I vote if he’s not consistent?” he said.
Meanwhile, Graham is also trying to dig into Harrison’s lead among independents, especially women. The Quinnipiac poll showed Harrison leading Graham among independents by 54 percent to 39 percent. And both Harrison and presidential nominee Joe Biden are leading their Republican opponents among women by 10 points.
To gain ground, Graham is painting Harrison as a far-left liberal, tying him to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. The left is “nuts,” Graham said at the debate, referring to its anger at the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. “They hate me. This is not about Mr. Harrison.”
Harrison promises to be an “independent voice” for South Carolina. Harrison said he does not support defunding the police or the Green New Deal, which he calls “too partisan and too expensive.”
While the polling is close, Harrison still has to overcome the fact that South Carolina is a conservative state.
There is no party-based voter registration here, but exit polls from 2016 indicate that Republicans make up about 46 percent of the electorate, Democrats about 27 percent and independents about 26 percent, making it difficult for a Democrat to win statewide.
The Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC to help elect Senate Republicans, invested $10 million to help Graham last week. The investment came days after the Senate Democrats’ super PAC, the Senate Majority Fund, threw in $6.5 million more for Harrison — both are a lot of money in the inexpensive media markets of South Carolina.
In-person absentee voting began Monday with longs lines stretching outside polling sites. The State Commission on Elections had already issued more than 350,000 absentee ballots more than a month before Election Day.
If Harrison does beat Graham, South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union over slavery, would be the first state to have two Black senators — one from each party.