Jaime Harrison seeks to convince Democrats he can take down Lindsey Graham

South Carolina’s Jaime Harrison is on a mission to convince Democrats and voters he is up to the challenge of toppling Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) in the Palmetto State’s closely watched Senate race this year.

Harrison, a former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman, is widely considered an underdog in his effort to unseat a three-term incumbent in a conservative state that reelected Graham by 15 points in 2014 and voted for President Trump by a similar margin in 2016.

Harrison has been able to attract buzz around his insurgent campaign from national Democrats who are eager to unseat one of the White House’s staunchest allies on Capitol Hill, garnering a slate of endorsements from high-profile lawmakers such as presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Rep. James Clyburn (D), a titan in South Carolina politics.

He also outraised Graham in the first quarter and again in the pre-primary period — though Graham’s $13.9 million bank account is still more than twice as big — and has benefited from a number of investments from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

But convincing the political world he can actually win is a different matter. The Senate race is rated as “Likely Republican” by The Cook Political Report and is not even listed in RealClearPolitics’s top Senate races.  

Harrison is hinging his strategy on channeling fury among some voters over Graham’s transition from Trump detractor during the 2016 race to Trump whisperer and leveraging his own longstanding ties to South Carolina to attract a broad coalition of Democrats, independents and disaffected Republicans to his campaign.

But South Carolina remains unfriendly territory for Democrats, having not elected a Democratic senator in more than two decades. And while Graham has irked some moderates by shedding his criticism of Trump and becoming a confidant of the president, he’s endeared himself to the GOP’s conservative base. 

In an interview with The Hill, Harrison expressed confidence that the South Carolina senator has turned off a sizable number of moderate Republicans with his evolution from “Graham 1.0,” who criticized Trump, to “Graham 2.0,” who is one of his closest allies. 

“This is a guy who has lost all support with Democrats, and he’s not going to get that support back. He has lost a lot of support … with independents, because he used to win overwhelmingly with independents. And he has garnered some support from the right, but I believe that that support is extremely weak at this point in time,” Harrison said.

“So we are looking at building the coalition that Lindsey Graham 1.0 used to have, one where we will have almost unanimous support from the Democratic Party, one where we will beat him with independents in the state, and one where we will find moderate Republicans who are tired of the heightened partisanship and the sycophantism that Lindsey Graham has conducted.”

Graham’s transformation from calling Trump a “kook” to singing his praises, reflective of the larger shift among the GOP, has made him a top boogeyman for Democrats and helped supercharge national support around Harrison’s campaign.

Harrison kicked his anti-Graham campaign into high gear this week with a blistering ad accusing Graham of “opposing help for South Carolinians” during the coronavirus pandemic and asking, “What happened to Lindsey Graham?” 

“As long as he continues to highlight the failures of Graham and elevate what he would do differently, I think the buzz will only grow,” said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist. 

Republicans swatted away the argument that Graham’s proximity to the White House is a negative for the senator’s campaign and have worked to cast Harrison as a beyond-the-pale liberal who is trying to drive a wedge between Trump and Graham.

“The fact is, when the President does well, the country does well. Senator Graham and President Trump have struck up an open and honest working relationship that helps them get positive things done for the country,” said T.W. Arrighi, Graham’s communications director. “Having the voice of a South Carolinian close to the President’s ear is always a net positive – no matter who the occupant of the White House might be.”

“Senator Graham is a conservative leader who gets things done while Jaime Harrison is a Democratic lobbyist who is far too extreme for South Carolina. We are very confident the voters will soundly reject the socialist agenda of the Democrats and send Lindsey Graham back to the U.S. Senate,” he added.

Harrison has largely stayed away from progressive litmus tests on policies such as “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal while calling for policies such as “extending health care to those who cannot afford it” and “protecting our clean air and water.”

Rather than highlight policy points, Harrison has mainly sought to boost his own appeal by highlighting his personal story, which he calls the “American dream.”

Harrison’s mother had him when she was a single teenager, and he grew up in a triplex with his grandparents in rural Orangeburg, S.C., aware at a young age that his family lived in poverty.

Harrison later earned a scholarship to attend Yale University before going to Georgetown Law School. He eventually served as an aide to Clyburn, earning him a valuable ally in his political career, and followed the South Carolina political giant as the lawmaker rose through the ranks to ultimately serve as his floor director when Clyburn became House majority whip. He was later elected the first Black chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party in 2013. 

Now 44 with two children of his own, Harrison told The Hill he’s running to make sure his success story is not out of reach for young people from similar upbringings. 

People “can feel the genuineness when I talk about these things because for many of us it’s personal,” Harrison said. “I know what it’s like to lose your home. I know what it’s like to be hungry. I know what it’s like to lose a family member because of a lack of health care. So all of these things aren’t just political issues for me. All of these things are personal to me.”

“I want to make sure that every kid, every young boy and young girl in this country gets the opportunity to live their American dream,” he added. “That’s what the role of being in Congress and being a United States senator is all about.”

Harrison now finds himself telling his story over the backdrop of massive civil unrest over police brutality and systemic racism after the death of George Floyd, who was killed in May while in police custody in Minneapolis.

Calling the protests a result of “historic pain that’s been passed down from generation to generation to generation,” Harrison said the GOP’s current police reform legislation does not go far enough and must include banning chokeholds and ending qualified immunity, the standard that protects officers from lawsuits over their use of force.

But while Congress languishes in a state of legislative limbo, the ongoing demonstrations may provide Harrison with another boost, energizing voters about four months ahead of his matchup with Graham and increasing the urgency of registering 400,000 unregistered voters of color.

“I think the protests will bring about a new set of energy and a new group of people who will engage in the political process who perhaps may not have been engaged or not engaged at this level before,” said Seawright. “And I think it’s so important for Jaime to be able to harness that energy.”

Harrison has already seen some signals of success, with a Civiqs poll conducted last month showing him and Graham tied with 42 percent of the vote and a former top donor to Graham switching his loyalties in the race.

But South Carolina is still nowhere near one of the top target states for Democrats, and Republicans are confident that Graham, who’s won comfortably in the past and has only seen his profile rise under the Trump administration, should have no problem putting Harrison away.

“Senator Graham’s profile has increased dramatically over the last few years, which has unquestionably helped grow South Carolina’s influence in the Senate,” said Arrighi. “Jaime is trying to pull the wool over the eyes of South Carolinians, but he won’t succeed because his radical views are far too liberal for our state.”

Tags Donald Trump Jaime Harrison Joe Biden Lindsey Graham

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