Democrats are optimistic about their chances of unseating Senator Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, bolstered by a recent slate of favorable polling and a massive cash windfall building behind Democrat Jaime Harrison’s Senate campaign.
A Quinnipiac University poll of the state released this week — the second in a little more than a month — showed Graham and Harrison running neck and neck at 48 percent each.
In the two days since then, Harrison has pulled in a staggering $2 million, adding to an already massive $10.6 million haul in August alone. And in a sign that national Democrats are eyeing the race with greater enthusiasm, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee announced a new seven-figure cash injection in the state.
“There’s a lot of momentum on the ground here and it’s so great and it’s so encouraging,” Harrison said in an interview on Friday. “When I first got into this race and people told me that I couldn’t do this, my whole statement to them is ‘Watch me,’ and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
The combined weight of the recent polling and Harrison’s staggering fundraising totals has fueled optimism among Democrats, who see in South Carolina a chance to widen their path to a Senate majority in November.
“It says to me that the battlefield is expanded, and it also says that no one can afford to ignore this race,” Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist, said.
“When Jaime entered this race, I think there was a serious case of infrastructure building and building a case, and now I think all of that is finalized, and we’re finally at the place where we have something,” he added.
The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday evening injected further uncertainty into the race. On Saturday, Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, pointed to previous statements he’d made to the press over the past several months signaling he was prepared to advance a nominee this year. His comments came after a video circulated Friday night showing him at the Atlantic Festival in 2018 telling the forum that he would wait until the next election if an opening on the Supreme Court happened after the primaries.
Democrats have argued that it’s too late in an election year for President Trump to nominate a replacement for Ginsburg, calling on Republicans to stick to the precedent Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell set in 2016 when he refused to hold a confirmation hearing for former President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.
They will likely seize on Graham’s past remarks as the battle over Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat unfolds. McConnell vowed on Friday to hold a vote on Trump’s eventual nominee, while Trump has vowed to swiftly name a successor to Ginsburg.
It’s too soon to tell how this new front in the political race will affect voters on the ground. Polling from Quinnipiac University over the past month and a half has shown Harrison outperforming his party’s presidential nominee,Joe Biden, among South Carolina voters. Graham, meanwhile, has lagged Trump’s levels of support in the state.
Harrison argues his strong numbers are due in part to his cross-party appeal in the state; he said that he’s rarely asked about the national political climate on the campaign trail, allowing him to run outside the shadow of the presidential race.
“I know we have crossover support. I’ve talked to a number of Republicans who I know are going to support us this fall,” he said. “There are a lot of people, and I think people are going to be surprised on Election Day at the number of crossover votes we get.”
Harrison’s prospects are also directly tied to his ability to turn out Black voters, who make up more than half of the state’s Democratic electorate.
“In the past, the Black community hasn’t had a reason to come out and vote,” he said. “Well, now we’re trying to give them one.”
But Harrison, a Democratic National Committee official and former lobbyist who in 2013 became the first African American to lead the South Carolina Democratic Party, faces a clear uphill battle in his campaign against Graham, a staunch Trump ally who has won each of his three previous Senate races by double-digit margins.
South Carolina voters haven’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1998, when former longtime Sen. Fritz Hollings won his final term in office. They haven’t chosen a Democrat for the White House since 1976, when former President Carter won his first and only term in office.
The top Republican outside groups — including the Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with McConnell — have largely stayed out of the South Carolina Senate race, opting instead to spend resources protecting the most vulnerable GOP incumbents in states such as Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina.
And Graham still has a cash advantage over Harrison, despite being outraised by the Democrat in recent months. The candidates’ most recent Federal Election Commission filings show Graham with about $15 million in cash reserves to Harrison’s $10.2 million.
The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election handicapper, currently rates the contest in South Carolina as “Lean Republican.” On Friday, another handicapper, Inside Elections, moved the race in Harrison’s direction, shifting it from the “Likely Republican” column to “Lean Republican.”
One Democrat familiar with the race acknowledged that South Carolina remains “fundamentally a tough state” for Democrats to win statewide but noted two encouraging signs for the party down ballot: Representative Joe Cunningham’s 2018 victory in a congressional district that Trump carried by 13 points and Democrat Spencer Wetmore’s win last month in a deep-red state House district outside Charleston.
Graham’s campaign has downplayed recent polls showing the race deadlocked. After the Quinnipiac poll showing the two candidates tied at 48 percent came out this week, Graham’s campaign noted that the survey had included too few GOP voters and too many Democrats.
Harrison dismissed that criticism, pointing to internal polling from his campaign that showed the race in a dead heat.
“I’m sure his internal polls are just like my internal polls, and they’re showing us neck and neck,” Harrison said.
Democrats’ line of attack against Graham has focused on painting the three-term senator as an out-of-touch politician whose tight embrace of Trump and subsequent lurch to the right since 2016 put him at odds with a vast swath of South Carolina voters, many of whom supported his last reelection bid six years ago.
Graham, meanwhile, has sought to play up his close ties to Trump and has hit Harrison over his past work as a lobbyist for the Podesta Group, the firm founded by Hillary Clinton’s former campaign chairman John Podesta.
Jesse Hunt, a spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said that Harrison’s past ties to Podesta’s firm would prove fatal for his campaign come November.
“Harrison working side by side with Clintonworld to lobby for unsavory clients will come back to haunt him at the ballot box this fall,” Hunt said in a statement.
Trump is widely expected to carry South Carolina for a second time in November. Democrats, however, are holding out hope that enough Republican voters will split their ticket for Harrison.
“You’re going to see people voting for their own interests and not for the political party of their choice,” Seawright, the Democratic strategist, said. “And that means splitting the ticket, that means having split households and that means probably doing things they never considered before.”