As he pushes a Supreme Court nominee, Lindsey Graham scrambles to save his own reelection
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Right, elbows presenter Judi Gatson after discussing Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison on Saturday in Columbia, S.C.
The Confederate flag waved here over the State Capitol until five years ago. No democrat has been elected nationwide for more than two decades. President Trump won the state by 14 percentage points in 2016.
But in conservative South Carolina, the most unlikely battlefield in the Republicans' struggle for control of the Senate, Senator Lindsey Graham finds himself in the battle of his career. He expects Trump to appoint Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court - and the hearings he'll chair starting Monday as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee - to act as a political lifeline and unite conservatives behind him.
Polls show the three-time GOP Senator is in a dead heat with his opponent Jaime Harrison, who is reaping an abundance of contributions from donors across the country. As a sign of the nationalization of the race, both candidates had raised more money in California as of August than in their home state.
In the battle, one of President Trump's most loyal allies faces a young black Democrat who, if he won, would make this racially polarized state the first with two black Senators (the other is GOP Senator Tim Scott).
Graham sees his re-election campaign as repayment for his role in promoting Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court two years ago and helping Trump establish a conservative judicial majority.
"This is not about Jaime Harrison," said Graham as the candidates debated here on Saturday. “It's about liberals hating my courage when I stood up for Kavanaugh and tried to help Trump. This election is about getting me out of there. "
Graham's problem isn't just that the Democrats made Harrison a national celebre. He also fought to rally his own party. In the past four years, he's gone from being one of Trump's most vocal critics to such a close ally that Graham was one of the first senators to speak to Trump after testing positive for COVID-19. The abrupt shift has taken a political price.
At a time when few voters share their tickets, Graham's fortune hangs heavily on Trump's. With Trump remaining popular in South Carolina, he continues to have a strong shot. But here too, Democratic candidate Joe Biden has gained ground. With Graham trailing Trump a few points in polls, the Senate contest outcome remains in doubt.
Graham's confidence in the Barrett nomination to cement his conservative support was evident in his debate with Harrison as he repeatedly mentioned his role in directing the nomination, even in response to a question on a different subject.
"If you want conservative judges, I'll be your only bet in this race," he said.
Graham also warned Conservatives that his re-election was key to continuing GOP control of the Senate.
"The nightmare scenario for our state is if they keep the house, take over the Senate and Biden is president, God help us all," said Graham. At another point, he labeled Democrats "crazy".
Harrison, former leader of the South Carolina Democratic Party, ran a campaign shedding light on his life story. Raised in poverty by his grandparents in rural South Carolina, he received a Yale scholarship, became a lawyer, and then entered the world of lobbying and democratic politics.
"I lived the American dream," Harrison said during the debate.
Harrison was helped by the surge in activism among color voters, which this year has raised many black candidates amid a national reckoning on racism.
"Jaime is the best Democratic nominee anyone has seen in a long time," said Matt Moore, former South Carolina GOP chairman. "He is in a cultural moment trying to correct a lot of old mistakes, and moderate voters recognize that fact."
Harrison broke state donation records. His campaign spent more than $ 46 million on television advertising in early October this year - more than three times as much as Graham, according to Advertising Analytics. Harrison so clogged the radio waves in South Carolina that in an hour of advertising on a local station, the same Harrison ad ran twice in a row recently.
Harrison said he saw his success to date as a sign of a "new South" that welcomed Democratic candidates.
"If you invest in candidates and actually bring to market candidates who reflect the values and talk about the issues that matter to people, you can keep up," Harrison said in a phone interview from his home in Columbia. "We have to stop neglecting the south."
But his challenge could be like the Georgia bid offered by Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Beto O’Rourke's challenge in the Texas Senate in 2018 - well-funded and surprisingly strong Democratic efforts that missed a few points.
Color voters make up about 30% of South Carolina voters and are mostly Democratic. The white majority in the state has been heavily Republican for years. To win, a Democrat needs a large number of black voters, as well as nearly 4 in 10 white voters. In a state where racial voting has long been the norm, math is difficult.
Part of what helped Harrison is Graham's maneuver to adapt to the Trump era: No other Republican has carried out a Trump era transformation as conspicuously and vividly documented.
When he ran for the GOP presidential run in 2016, Graham described Trump as a "racial, xenophobic religious fanatic" and "not fit for office". This sparked conservative suspicions that were already high due to Graham's record as the dealmaking pragmatist and sidekick of the underdog GOP Senator John McCain of Arizona.
Graham changed his position after Trump won and McCain died. He declares his conversion to be an act of pragmatism.
"So I lost and he won," Graham said in a campaign bureau this summer. "I like the direction that President Trump has taken us politically, and I think the people of South Carolina didn't want me to take my ball and go home."
In 2018, Graham wowed conservatives and appalled liberals with a inflammatory Justice Committee speech defending Kavanaugh against allegations of assaulting Christine Blasey Ford as a teenager.
As he pushed for the Barrett nomination, Graham abandoned his 2016 view when he joined fellow Republicans to block President Obama's Merrick Garland nomination for being an election year.
Graham made promises over and over again in 2018 that he would be consistent and refuse to confirm a candidate for a court in an election year, even with Trump as president.
"Use my words against me," he said.
Harrison and his allies brought it up to him. Graham testimony footage, then and now, was an important part of the Harrison campaign publicity. Anti Graham protesters dressed as flip flops outside the debate.
"A man is only as good as his word," Harrison said during the debate.
Graham's support among Republicans is still lagging. In his GOP primary election in February 2020, Graham received just 68% of the vote against three little-known protest candidates. In a recent Morning Consult poll, 84% of Republicans supported Graham. 94% supported Trump. Among the Democrats, 95% supported Harrison.
But many Republicans are predicting that the party ranks will close instead of risking a Democratic takeover of the Senate.
"A lot of Republicans will go to the polling booth, hold their noses and vote for Lindsey," said Pressley Stutts, a Greenville tea party leader who voted against Graham in the primary but will support him in November.
"The people of South Carolina have loved and hated him over the years," said Stephanie Rawlinson, a GOP activist in Florence, who thanked Graham for helping her family recover from a 2017 car accident. "He always had my back."
Still, Graham's alliance with Trump is costing him support among voters like Dick Wilkerson, a former supporter who liked the pragmatic Graham of the past.
"I'm not supporting him today because of the man he's become," said Wilkerson, former chairman of Michelin North America in Greenville, in an ad for Harrison.
As an upswing, Graham recently took on the endorsement of Bill Bledsoe, a Spartanburg veterinarian who serves in the Constitutional Party line and appealed to disaffected Conservatives.
"I ran because I was upset with Lindsey Graham," Bledsoe said in an interview. "But I didn't want to take Sen. Graham's votes."
However, Bledsoe was still able to get protest votes as his name remains on the ballot.
One of the Republicans who ran against Graham in the primary is not convinced. "I'm not going to vote for him," said Joe Reynolds, an engineer with the US Merchant Marine.
Reynolds, who received 9% of the vote in the GOP primary, says he is concerned the Republican Party may lose support from moderates and suburban women.
"We act like it's all about Trump all the time," he said in an email from a ship at sea. “It's a dead end if you ask me. "
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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