Supreme Court battle acts as lifeline for Lindsey Graham

Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court is a political life preserver for Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamDACA court ruling puts weight of immigration reform on Democrats Senate braces for a nasty debt ceiling fight Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor MORE (R-S.C.). 

A reelection race that once appeared to be smooth sailing for the powerful chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee has been moved by experts into the “toss-up” category as polls tightened and Graham was dramatically outraised by his Democratic opponent. 

But this week he takes center stage in a Supreme Court confirmation process that polls have shown is popular with Republicans. GOP strategists say this week’s hearing before his committee will give Graham millions of dollars worth of media exposure and help him shore up support among Trump voters in South Carolina. 

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“It gives him a spotlight where voters see he is presiding over such an important process of putting a new Supreme Court nominee on the bench. It’s so much free media for him while his opponent has outraised him,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist and former Senate leadership aide. 

“You can’t put a price tag on the type of media he’s getting by presiding over this hearing. I think it’s really helpful to him,” he added. “There’s very little downside at this point.”  

Graham has used the opportunity to portray himself as a strong and decisive ally of President TrumpDonald TrumpRonny Jackson, former White House doctor, predicts Biden will resign McCarthy: Pelosi appointing members of Jan. 6 panel who share 'pre-conceived narrative' Kinzinger denounces 'lies and conspiracy theories' while accepting spot on Jan. 6 panel MORE, setting up a process to confirm Barrett to the high court in about 32 or 33 days, the fastest any nominee has been confirmed since the late Justice John Paul Stevens in 1975.  

He has also used the exposure to try to keep pace with his Democratic opponent, Jaime Harrison, who reported raising an astounding $57 million in the third quarter. 

“The disparity in money — I can’t get away from it,” said Katon Dawson, the former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. “I’m not complaining, that’s the game. But that it’s happening here in South Carolina is a huge wake up call for Republicans. [Harrison] is going to have raised over $100 million when it’s said and done. I don’t see how he could spend it all.” 

Graham grumbled about Harrison’s fundraising at the start of the hearing Tuesday morning.  

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“I don’t know what’s going on out there, but I can tell you there’s a lot of money being raised in this campaign. I’d like to know where the hell some of it is coming from,” he said.  

He also made an extended pitch at the start of Barrett’s second day of confirmation hearings about how to reform the Affordable Care Act to provide $1 billion more in federal aid to South Carolina.  

“If it were up to me, bureaucrats would not be administering health care from Washington. People in South Carolina would be running health care. If it were up to me, we’d get more money under ObamaCare than we do today,” he said, later adding: “We’re involved in a campaign in South Carolina. My fate will be left up to the people of South Carolina.” 

Graham’s high profile in the Senate Supreme Court fight is not without potential drawbacks, however.

His close allegiance with Trump and knack for getting media coverage made him a bogeyman for liberals across the country, who have poured money into his opponent’s campaign. Somewhere around 90 percent of Harrison’s $37 million second-quarter haul came from outside of South Carolina. 

Graham’s bold decision to put Barrett on a fast track to confirmation, to go ahead with hearings despite two Republican committee members testing positive for COVID-19 earlier this month and to schedule a date for voting the nominee out of committee before the hearings are completed, will fire up Democratic donors even more.  

Harrison on Tuesday took a shot at Graham for “rushing” to fill the late Justice Ruth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader GinsburgAnti-abortion movement eyes its holy grail Abortion rights face most difficult test yet at Supreme Court Mississippi's attorney general asks Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade MORE’s seat before the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on Nov. 10 on California v. Texas, in which 20 Republican-led states are trying to overturn the Affordable Care Act.  

“Undoing this law would unleash chaos throughout our health care system during a pandemic — pulling coverage away from nearly 250,000 South Carolinians and stripping protections for over 900,000 South Carolinians with pre-existing conditions,” Harrison said.  

And some Republicans are doubtful Graham will get much of a boost out of the hearing, which is attracting far less media attention than the explosive hearings to confirm Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Kavanaugh conspiracy? Demands to reopen investigation ignore both facts and the law On The Money: Yellen to Congress: Raise the debt ceiling or risk 'irreparable harm' | Frustration builds as infrastructure talks drag MORE. 

“It’s not going to have the same heft,” said Dawson. 

Graham’s bigger problem, however, is fractured support among Republican voters, who may still remember and resent the leading role he played with the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain on Pelosi, McCarthy fight: 'I think they're all bad' Democrats seek to counter GOP attacks on gas prices Biden nominates Jeff Flake as ambassador to Turkey MORE (R-Ariz.) in getting comprehensive immigration reform passed through the Senate in 2013.  

Graham won his primary in 2014 with only 56 percent of the vote, narrowly avoiding a runoff.  

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Polls show that Trump voters have lingering doubts about the senior GOP senator who drew criticism from conservatives in the past for advocating for climate change legislation and immigration reform.  

Graham headed into the 2020 election cycle with weak approval numbers. A Winthrop University poll from April 2018 showed that his approval rating among South Carolinians who identify as Republican or lean Republican stood at only 50 percent. 

He boosted that support from the GOP base in 2018 and last year by embracing Trump and becoming one of his staunchest allies in the Senate, golfing with the president regularly.  

A key moment for Graham was his impassioned defense of Kavanaugh as a nominee in October 2018, when he angrily accused Democrats of trying to destroy the judge’s reputation and personal life for political gain.  

By early November 2018, Graham had increased his approval rating among respondents who identified as Republican to 72 percent in the Winthrop University poll.  

Colleagues say Graham was worried about his primary, but he easily won his party’s nomination with 68 percent of the vote, defeating three challengers. 

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He appeared to be cruising toward reelection, but Harrison has managed to close the polling gap in South Carolina, despite the state’s decisive shift rightward since it last elected a Democrat for Senate in 1998.  

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report moved the South Carolina Senate race to a toss-up last week.  

A Quinnipiac University Poll survey published on Sept. 30 showed Graham and Harrison tied with 48 percent support among more than 1,000 likely South Carolina voters. The survey showed that while Trump had a 49 percent job approval rating among likely voters, Graham’s came in at 43 percent.  

A CBS News-YouGov poll showed that 88 percent of conservative voters in the state are backing Trump, while 76 percent support Graham.

Graham is hoping to recapture the enthusiasm he generated among Republicans across the country when he slammed Democratic colleagues for their treatment of Kavanaugh weeks before the 2018 midterm elections, declaring, “This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics.”  

“Given how dramatically he’s being outspent on TV, it’s really helpful for Sen. Graham to have a bunch of free airtime at this critical point. These hearings provide an opportunity to remind South Carolina voters why they’ve always reelected him in the past,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former Senate aide.