COLUMBIA — The second debate in South Carolina’s competitive U.S. Senate race was scrapped hours before it was scheduled to begin Friday night after Democratic challenger Harrison insisted that Republican incumbent Lindsey Graham Graham take a coronavirus test in advance and Graham refused.
Instead of an hour-long debate, the two candidates participated in separate 25-minute interviews hosted by television station WSPA in Spartanburg that covered a range of topics including the Supreme Court, economic relief during the pandemic, vaccines requirements for schools, police brutality, health care and more.
The decision to move to a forum format put an end to tumultuous back-and-forth in the final 24 hours before the debate.
Harrison issued a public demand Thursday night that Graham take a coronavirus test before they debated, following what Harrison’s campaign spokesman said was a similar private request Wednesday.
Graham cast the move as a last-ditch attempt to escape the debate by adding a new requirement after the two candidates had already agreed to the debate rules weeks ago that only required a temperature check.
The senator refused to take the test, citing a note from the attending physician of Congress saying that he did not need one. With the two opponents at an impasse, WSPA shifted the format to allow for two separate interviews.
Harrison went first in the new format and began by noting that Republican candidates in other races had taken coronavirus tests before their debates, including Vice President Mike Pence and the GOP incumbents in Texas and Maine.
“What we’re asking for is our senior senator to take this seriously,” Harrison said.
Graham responded by saying that other South Carolinians who go to work cannot expect all of their coworkers to get tested every day, suggesting that Harrison was demanding “special treatment.”
“This is not about testing,” Graham said. “This is about political accountability, and the great loss tonight was a debate.”
Asked about racial disparities in health care access, Harrison called for South Carolina to expand Medicaid and for the federal government to offer a public option in the health insurance marketplace.
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“What the coronavirus did was it exacerbated problems that were already here,” Harrison said, noting that multiple rural hospitals in South Carolina have closed in recent years, forcing people to drive further to access health care.
Graham touted his proposal to replace the Affordable Care Act with a block grant program that would distribute funds to the states to set up their own health insurance programs.
In Graham’s portion of the event, he sought to turn the focus to judges and his plans to confirm President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. Confirmation hearings in the Senate judiciary committee that Graham leads are scheduled to begin next week.
Graham noted that Harrison opposed Trump’s two prior nominees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, whereas Graham voted to confirm two of former President Barack Obama’s nominees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
“If you’re looking for somebody to support conservative judges, I’m your guy,” Graham said. “If you’re looking for somebody to reach across the aisle, I have done it.”
Asked if he believes Barrett is qualified, Harrison said he wants to ask her questions about her views on civil rights laws before reaching that conclusion. But he highlighted the fact that Graham previously said in 2018 that he would not vote to confirm a Supreme Court nominee in the last year of Trump’s term.
Both candidates said they want to see more economic relief during the coronavirus pandemic, but Graham said it is important to provide liability protection for businesses while Harrison criticized him for not supporting an extension of $600 per week in enhanced unemployment benefits
Graham has said he would support some level of additional unemployment benefits but not $600 because it could allow some people to make more money in unemployment than they did at work.
A third debate sponsored by SCETV and The Post and Courier planned for Oct. 21 is in limbo because of scheduling conflicts with the Senate’s confirmation for Barrett. The news outlets and campaigns are in negotiations over possible new dates.
Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.