North Charleston, South Carolina – An epic political battle is cresting in South Carolina, where Sen. Lindsey Graham, a presidential ally, is neck-and-neck with a Black challenger two decades his junior, raising Democratic hopes of snatching a Senate seat in Trump country.
Outfundraised by Democrat Jaime Harrison, and glued to Donald Trump’s hip on issues like immigration and Supreme Court nominations, Graham is under threat like never before in a state where his Republican Party has controlled the local legislature, governor’s mansion and both U.S. Senate seats for at least the last 15 years.
With Trump’s fortunes sinking along with his poll numbers, Democrats are eyeing potential flips in several other states as they seek to reclaim control of the Senate.
But suddenly South Carolina — a traditionally conservative bastion that Harrison describes as a legacy of the slave-holding “old South” — is in play, despite Graham’s repeated claims that both he and Trump will win re-election in 17 days.
“Lindsey Graham’s scared,” Harrison told a crowd Saturday in North Charleston, where supporters honked their approval at a drive-in campaign event to allow social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.
“He is nervous, and he should be,” the 44-year-old Harrison added. “Because the people of South Carolina are about to give him a one-way ticket back home!”
A Harrison victory would send shock waves through American politics, notably because South Carolina — where the opening shots of the Civil War were fired in 1861 — would become the first U.S. state ever represented by two Black senators at the same time.
The state’s other senator, Tim Scott, is Republican.
Harrison, whose aunt died of COVID-19 this year, recalled growing up in poverty, doing his homework in the dark when his family could not pay the electricity bill.
“I know what hard times is,” the Yale graduate and former head of the South Carolina Democratic Party said, invoking the lilt of his grandparents who helped raise him.
“On Nov. 3, the people of South Carolina are going to close the book on the old south, and write a brand new book called the ‘New South,'” one of boldness, diversity and inclusion, Harrison said as the car horns reached a crescendo.
“And out of the ashes, we will rise like a phoenix.”
With his position at risk, the 65-year-old Graham campaigned Friday in the Palmetto State, stepping off a campaign bus bearing a larger-than-life image of the senator — only to highlight how he is being outspent by Harrison, who raised a staggering record $57 million in the third quarter.
“Help me pay for the bus!” he pleaded, only half-jokingly, to a few dozen supporters in an otherwise deserted parking lot near Charleston.
Most of them appeared to be connected to Graham’s campaign or the party apparatus, offering a striking contrast to the rowdier Harrison campaign event.
Why is a conservative star who has the president’s ear and is helping guide Trump’s nominee onto the Supreme Court in any jeopardy in ruby red South Carolina?
Democrats and some Republicans point to Graham’s reversals on two key issues.
He loathed Trump in 2016, then embraced him after he won the presidency. He also vowed to oppose confirming a new justice in an election year, only to become a fierce advocate for Amy Coney Barrett’s Senate confirmation before the election.
“What has happened is Lindsey Graham has shot himself in the foot. That’s why it’s close,” Johnnie Cordero, who chairs the South Carolina Democratic Party’s Black caucus, said in a telephone interview.
Graham’s supporters say South Carolinians will look past his flip-flops.
“I think the Republicans are going to forgive him for those things. Things change over time,” said 68-year-old Debra Bays, a party volunteer who is door-knocking for Trump and Graham.
South Carolina is changing, too. Immigrants are moving to the state, and the low country along the coast is now decidedly purple.
Lawyer Bennett Crites, who cast his ballot Friday at an early voting location in North Charleston, said there are many South Carolinians “disappointed in the job that Graham has done.”
“So it would be a shocker if (Harrison) pulled it off, but it wouldn’t surprise me either,” he added.
Despite polls showing Trump trailing Biden and RealClearPolitics labeling South Carolina’s Senate contest a toss-up, Graham insisted the prospects of re-election for him and Trump, whose toxic tone has irritated the senator, are improving.
“He can be a handful who can get in the way of his own success,” Graham said, but the presidency is no “personality contest” either.
“As we get closer to voting day there’s a comparison going on, of where the country will go under his leadership versus that of the Democratic Party, and I think it’s getting better for us by the day.”
Graham elbow-bumped his supporters but wore a mask as they snapped selfies while he attacked Democrats as promoting “the most radical movement in (U.S.) history.”
But Democratic voters see Harrison as fighting for fairness — particularly in access to health care — for everyday Americans.
“He’s like a breath of fresh air,” historian Don Doyle, 74, said at Harrison’s rally, and “he’s giving Lindsey a run for his money.”
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