Graham's embrace of Trump fuels competitive fight in South Carolina

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamWhat you need to know about FBI official Dana Boente's retirement Rosenstein steps back into GOP crosshairs The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump tweets as tensions escalate across US MORE (R-S.C.), a vocal ally of President TrumpDonald John TrumpSessions accepts 'Fox News Sunday' invitation to debate, Tuberville declines Priest among those police cleared from St. John's Church patio for Trump visit Trump criticizes CNN on split-screen audio of Rose Garden address, protesters clashing with police MORE's who is frequently in the political and media spotlight, is suddenly facing a competitive reelection race back home.

Graham’s alliance with Trump has helped him avoid a nasty primary fight, while fueling Democratic efforts to unseat him in November. 

Scott Huffmon, a political science professor and the executive director for the Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at Winthrop University, predicted that the match-up against Jaime Harrison, the former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party and Graham's top opponent, could be “potentially a single-digit race.” 

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“The probability is Graham is going to win, but he has not faced this well-known or this well-funded of a candidate probably since ... when he first ran for the seat,” Huffmon said. “The question is, how are Democrats going to turn out against Trump?” 

Polling in the race has been scarce, and the spread of the coronavirus has largely forced both campaigns to go fully digital as they try to raise money and connect with voters. Two polls released in February had Graham leading by double digits. A left-leaning Change Research-Post and Courier poll released late last year found Graham with just a 2-point lead, while an internal Harrison poll released in late March had Graham ahead by 4 percentage points. 

Graham, during a recent virtual town hall meeting, noted that he’s ramped up his digital operations and touted his campaign as well placed to win in November. 

“We’ve got a digital platform that I’m proud of. We’re raising a lot of money,” Graham said. “I’m doing as much interaction as I can. ... We’ve got a very viable campaign.” 

But there are signs that Harrison is making inroads in the deeply red state, where Graham remains the favorite to win.

“It’s clear he has the energy and momentum on his side to put this seat in play. Senator Graham is a weak incumbent who has lost touch with his state, put his own self-serving political interests ahead of his constituents, and is now facing the toughest general election of his career,” said Stewart Boss, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. 

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The Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball, of the University of Virginia, both announced late last week that they were changing their ratings for the race to “likely Republican,” reflecting Graham’s growing national stature as an ally for Trump. 

“Graham's political skills should not be underestimated, and he’s clearly taking this race quite seriously, as he should. However, we also can't overlook the considerable resume that Harrison also brings to the race, and even South Carolina Republicans admit he is a strong candidate,” the Cook Political Report's Jessica Taylor wrote in an analysis.

Harrison outpaced Graham during fundraising for the first three months of 2020, bringing in $7.3 million to Graham’s $5.6 million. Graham, however, has $12.8 million in the bank, which his campaign noted was the most a state or federal candidate has ever raised in South Carolina history. 

Drew McKissick, the chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, brushed off both the race ratings changes, which he described as the “ebb and flow of the news cycle,” and the fundraising numbers. 

“I think you've got a situation that's got more to do with money than on the ground intel and political common sense,” he told The Hill. “We are going to have the kind of wins that we're used to having here.” 

But a Democratic strategist monitoring the race said that Graham in recent years had become a “polarizing” figure as he embraced the president. 

Unseating Graham will be a “tough race,” the strategist added, but that Harrison “has a path here.” 

Guy King, a spokesman for Harrison, added that the Democratic campaign was seeing “momentum.” 

"What we're seeing in South Carolina, Lindsey Graham's playing political games in Washington and the people in South Carolina are tired of him putting those antics above the issues they are suffering from each and every day," King added.

Graham has aligned himself with Trump on some of the biggest fights of the president’s term, including the 2018 court battle over Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughSupreme Court rules immigrants who fear torture can appeal deportations in court It wasn't just religious liberty that Chief Justice Roberts strangled Supreme Court denies California church's challenge to state restrictions MORE’s Supreme Court nomination, during which the GOP senator went viral as he lashed out at Democrats on the panel over their questions. 

McKissick called the GOP reaction to Graham “overwhelmingly positive" and noted that the issue of judicial nominations is "incredibly important to conservatives" 

“It's been a pressing concern, and basically a project for conservatives nationally ... Senator Graham has been an incredibly valuable asset in getting that done for the conservative movement,” he added. 

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More recently, Graham was a vocal supporter of Trump's during the impeachment trial, accusing Democrats of trying to destroy the president. Asked during the town hall by a constituent if they could impeach and fire House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump praises 'domination' of DC protesters Pelosi, Schumer say treatment of protesters outside White House 'dishonors every value that faith teaches us' Democrats call for Congress to take action following death of George Floyd MORE (D-Calif.), Graham broke out into a pitch on Republicans recapturing the House in November. 

“Yeah, in November,” Graham said. “If you don’t like what a politician is doing in America, you can fire them at the ballot box.” 

Graham appeared to tip his hand to the opposing reactions he can spark among his own constituents. In back-to-back questions, Graham got a marriage proposal followed by a constituent who called him “punk.” 

“A lot of people agree with that,” Graham said. 

When another constituent asked why the GOP senator wasn’t being investigated for treason, Graham quipped back that people are “too busy.” 

Graham was a staunch critic of Trump's during the 2016 GOP presidential primary, of which Graham was briefly a participant, and has criticized the president when the two have disagreed, particularly on foreign policy.

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He has said his embrace of Trump wasn’t driven by his own political fortunes, but strategists warn that if he hadn’t set aside their previous feuds, including when Trump publicly gave out Graham’s phone number, it would have resulted in a larger political headache: an all but guaranteed primary challenge from the right. 

Huffmon said that Graham could be risking independent voters “if they turn out.” Richard Wilkerson, the former chairman and president of Michelin’s operations in North America, who was a top donor to Graham, announced that he would cross the aisle to support Harrison.

But he added that if Graham had remained critical of Trump after his surprise White House win, Graham “would have faced a primary attack from the Trump wing.” 

“When Trump won South Carolina decisively, the conservatives in South Carolina ... the party faithful became uber-Trump. Then there was really no choice for Graham if he wanted to make sure that that army would be behind him,” he added. 

Graham’s position on issues like immigration has made him a years-long antagonist in the eyes of conservatives, who have termed his previous plans as “Grahamnesty.” He was viewed as vulnerable to a primary challenge in 2014, though he was ultimately able to avoid a primary by winning 56 percent of the GOP vote. By comparison, a Winthrop University poll released last year had Graham with 74 percent approval among Republicans. 

“If Graham’s rightward trek strengthened his hand with conservatives, it deadened his prospects for crossover support with Democrats — not exactly a bad trade for the senator, considering Trump carried the state 55%-41% in 2016,” Sabato’s Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman wrote when they updated their rating for the South Carolina race. 

They added that while beating Graham would not be an “easy” task, “it is also not an impossible one.”