The Battle for South Carolina: Can Jaime Harrison Defeat Lindsey Graham in the Best-Funded Senate Campaign in U.S. History?

 /  Oct. 31, 2020, 3:55 p.m.

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The South Carolina Senate race is the most contentious political race the state has seen in many years. The Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison faces three-term Republican incumbent Lindsey Graham. Harrison, a forty-four-year-old former chairman of South Carolina’s Democratic Party, has seen his campaign rapidly gain momentum. This is in part due to anger from both Democrats and Republicans at Graham’s support of President Donald Trump and his efforts to nominate Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Born in rural South Carolina to a single, teenage mother, Harrison’s campaign has emphasized his authenticity to stand in contrast to Graham’s supposed hypocrisy and long career in politics. Recent polling shows Harrison with a two-point lead over Graham, but the race is too close to call. It is still unclear if Harrison’s momentum will be enough to emerge victorious against an incumbent who won his most recent re-election by fifteen points. 

Record-Breaking Fundraising

Harrison has made headlines recently for his massive fundraising campaign. He is expected to spend nearly three times the amount Graham will spend on television and media ads by the end of the race. Harrison has raised over $86 million thus far, with $57 million coming from the third quarter of 2020 alone. This is an all-time fundraising record for any South Carolina candidate and the highest amount of money raised by any US Senate candidate in a single quarter, breaking the record previously set by Beto O’Rourke’s campaign in 2018. 

Harrison’s campaign is primarily using the money for advertisements, spending $61 million on television and digital advertising in the weeks leading up to the election, compared to Graham’s $19 million, a fact which has not escaped Graham’s campaign. Recently at the Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Barrett, Graham complained about Harrison’s incredible fundraising numbers during the introduction to a question about corporate money in politics and remarked he’d like to know “Where the hell this money is coming from?” 

That was just one of Graham’s public expressions of anxiety over his fundraising deficit. In the past three weeks, Graham has made eight separate appearances on Fox News to ask viewers to donate to his campaign. Despite his obvious concern about his underwhelming fundraising numbers, Graham still maintains that his victory is imminent, saying in a statement that “the problem is there’s not enough money in the world to convince South Carolinians to vote for the radical liberal agenda.”

Although fundraising is a crucial aspect of a political campaign, it is not necessarily an indicator of how the race will go. Both Harrison and Graham received most of their donations from out of state—Harrison’s in-state contribution rate is 10 percent and Graham’s is 14 percent. Like Harrison, O’Rourke had a record-breaking campaign for a Texas Senate seat in 2018, raising $38 million in the third quarter of his race, but he ultimately lost to Senator Ted Cruz. While Graham’s campaign claims that Harrison’s donations are all coming from wealthy out-of-state liberals, his campaign can truly be considered grassroots. As of October 11, Harrison’s campaign had received donations from over 994,000 individual donors, with the average donation being around $37. Although most of these donors live out of state and are unable to vote for him, they are funding Harrison’s efforts to reach more voters in South Carolina that can, particularly young and Black voters. 

The Post-Trump Backlash to Lindsey Graham

Despite Harrison outspending Graham, the race remains incredibly close. South Carolina has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since re-electing an incumbent in 1998. In 2014, Graham won his re-election race in a seventeen point landslide. Trump also easily won South Carolina in 2016 by a fourteen point margin, highlighting why South Carolina has long been considered a Republican stronghold. However, Graham has slowly been losing popularity in his home state, especially since the 2016 election of Trump.

In the lead up to the 2016 election, Graham was one of Trump’s greatest critics, calling him a “race-baiting, xenophobic, bigot” who was unfit to be President. After his nomination, Graham suddenly became a staunch, vocal supporter of Trump. This reversal made him quite unpopular among many of his constituents, who accused him of “flip-flopping.” Formerly known for his willingness to make deals across the aisle, Graham began to support Trump’s conservative policies in recent years. In 2013, he was part of a bipartisan group of senators that drafted a plan for broad immigration overhaul that included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but recently supported Trump’s plan to build a border wall that included taking $11 million in funding designated for a military installation in South Carolina. 

Similarly, Graham has faced recent controversy for changing his opinion about nominating a Supreme Court Justice during an election year. In 2016, he fought President Barack Obama’s effort to elect Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, claiming that the American people should have a voice in the nomination, even challenging that his words should be used against him in the future in the case of a sitting Republican president. However, Graham has said the complete opposite about Barrett’s confirmation process, stating “There is nothing unconstitutional about this process. This is a vacancy that's occurred through a tragic loss of a great woman, and we're going to fill that vacancy with another great woman. The bottom line here is that the Senate is doing its duty constitutionally.” His reputation for hypocrisy has led to decreasing favorability ratings. According to a new DSCC poll, 81 percent of Republican voters support Graham, which is one of the lowest percentages among incumbent candidates running for re-election on November 3. 

On the other hand, Jaime Harrison has the support of 97 percent of Democratic voters in South Carolina, and higher support from independent voters than Graham does. One key issue of his platform is expanding access to affordable healthcare in South Carolina. According to a Quinnipiac poll, most South Carolina voters are in favor of keeping the Affordable Care Act, which Graham intends to repeal, inspiring fears that healthcare will be taken away from millions of Americans as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. 

Harrison’s high favorability rating and record-breaking fundraising numbers indicate that a large number of Americans support him and his policies. The future of the Supreme Court and the healthcare system are on the line in this election. The partisan split between the two candidates could not be clearer. Speaking at one of his rallies, Graham warned his supporters that if he loses his seat in November, the “radical left” will take over, packing the Supreme Court and raising taxes. If Graham loses his re-election battle, the Republican party is one step closer to losing its hold on the Senate. 

The close Senate race in South Carolina is one of many contentious races across the country that will determine which party will control the legislative and executive branches. Harrison winning Graham’s seat would undermine the Republican Party’s once-firm grasp on South Carolina and the Senate. The fact that the race is a toss-up in a traditional conservative stronghold and Harrison has vast supporters across the country is symptomatic of a broader change in US politics. Younger, more progressive candidates like Harrison are challenging conservative incumbents deeply entrenched in the world of politics, by energizing many American voters and giving their opponents the fight of their political careers.

The image used in this story is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. This image was originally posted to Flickr by Gage Skidmore and can be found here. No changes were made to the original image.

Katherine O'Connor


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