In SC, Graham, Harrison near end of well-funded Senate fight
GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — As they cast ballots for U.S. Senate, South Carolina voters are faced with a choice: Reelect a powerful incumbent with a senior legislative role who has helped place conservative justices on the Supreme Court, or opt for a new Democratic challenger who promises to focus on issues that he says will benefit working-class and minority communities across the state.
In his pursuit of a fourth term, Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham is facing his most stalwart general election opponent to date: fundraising powerhouse and former state Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison.
Having defeated all previous opponents by double-digit margins, Graham acknowledges that he is now in a tough political fight, with some polls showing a neck-and-neck contest.
“This is the biggest challenge that I have ever faced, and it’s good not to do it by yourself,” he told a crowd of hundreds at a rally on Tuesday in Greenville, ahead of comments from Vice President Mike Pence.
The contest has been propelled by an impossible-to-ignore onslaught of cash being spent by both candidates, as well as a slew of third-party groups supporting each of them. Harrison has bested all Senate fundraising records, becoming the first candidate to amass a war chest of more than $100 million, $57 million of which came in a single quarter — a record on its own.
Graham has raised around $67 million, and his third-quarter haul of $28 million represented a quarterly record for any GOP Senate candidate.
The money has amounted to wall-to-wall digital and broadcast advertising, as well as a plethora of mailers. Harrison, a former lobbyist and associate chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has even used some of his copious cash to mount an effort to steer conservative voters toward Bill Bledsoe, a Constitution Party candidate who dropped out to endorse Graham, but whose name remains on ballots. The move is an attempt to cleave votes from Graham in the tightening race. Bledsoe has asked the campaign to “cease and desist” from what he calls dishonest “dirty tricks” advertising.
More than a million South Carolinians have already voted in this year’s general election, with absentee voting obliterating records from 2016. Voting for Graham in Lexington County, Steve Smith of Pelion called the ads “crooked,” saying he had even briefly considered voting for Bledsoe until he read the fine print on the ads.
“A lot of people don’t look at the bottom where it says, ‘Paid for by Jaime Harrison,’” he said.
There’s also been the undercurrent of the recent battle over Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump’s third nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court. As Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Graham oversaw that contentious process, including a committee vote in which no Democrats participated, and a largely partisan Senate floor confirmation.
The process kept Graham in the national spotlight for weeks, during televised hearings and media appearances to discuss the process. Answering a reporter’s question on Capitol Hill about his reelection contest, Graham made a plug for campaign contributions, a comment that drew an ethics complaint from the South Carolina Democratic Party.
Harrison, meanwhile, has portrayed Graham as a career politician too long in Washington and too far removed from the lives of his constituents.
“It seems like our senator doesn’t understand the dignity of hard work, because instead of working hard for South Carolina, he goes golfing with the president,” Harrison said during a recent drive-in rally in Columbia. “When I’m in Washington, D.C., as your senator, I’m going to wake up every day ... thinking about how I can improve your life and your family’s lives.”
Harrison has also highlighted Graham’s previous opposition to election-year high court nominations, including a 2018 video in which he said, “If an opening comes in the last year of President Trump’s term, and the primary process has started, we’ll wait to the next election.”
“My grandpa always said that a man is only as good as his word,” Harrison said at the time, a refrain he has repeated at campaign events since. “Sen. Graham, you have proven your word is worthless.”
Throughout his 25-year career representing South Carolina in the U.S. House and Senate, Graham has taken on and handily defeated primary challengers from the right who didn’t see him as conservative enough for the state, where Republicans control both legislative chambers and hold all statewide offices and most congressional seats.
Graham was too conciliatory, his critics argued, too ready to work out deals with Democrats on issues such as immigration alongside his longtime ally and friend, the late Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona. But Graham’s journey from Trump’s foe to friend has ingratiated him with some of those critics.
On Wednesday, tea party activists gathered in the conservative Upstate to formally back Graham, noting that they had previously disagreed with him but, six days ahead of the election, were wholeheartedly endorsing him against the “socialist” Harrison.
Regina Wise of Lexington, an early voter, said she supported Harrison, although she wasn’t optimistic he would be able to defeat Graham.
“I’m going to vote for him, but I do know in my heart of hearts that I don’t believe Lexington County will support him,” she said.
Michelle Liu, a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative, contributed to this report. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.