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South Carolina Senate Moves From Likely to Lean Republican

Ever since he launched his underdog bid against veteran GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, former South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison has needed a lot of things to go right to be genuinely competitive in a place as heavily Republican as the Palmetto State. 

One of those was proving he could match the three-term incumbent from a fundraising standpoint. Harrison has now outraised Graham for two consecutive quarters. He has pulled nearly even with Graham for amount raised throughout the cycle, with $30.9 million brought in by Graham and $29 million total raised by Harrison through the end of June.

The second was a more favorable electoral climate that could help the Democratic challenger boost African-American turnout and woo white, college educated suburban voters to his side; now, the uncertainty and anger amidst the COVID pandemic — including a surge last month in South Carolina — has done just that. Racial injustice protests that swept the nation in early June also give Harrison, who is Black, further motivation for turning out African-American voters in the state. Were Harrison to upset Graham, South Carolina — the first state to secede from the Union in 1860 — would become the first state in history to have two Black senators serving at the same time, joining Republican Sen. Tim Scott. 

Polling shows that possibility is no longer a long-shot, though the race fundamentals still give Graham an advantage. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted from July 30-August 3 showed the race tied at 44 percent a piece. Graham’s job approval was also narrowly underwater (47 percent disapproving and 43 percent approving), and he was losing independents by 10 points to Harrison. The Democratic nominee is also winning women by 5 points, but that slim advantage seems to be driven by Black women, since Graham is still winning white women by 26 points. Republicans also argue that the poll undersampled GOP voters and said their own polling shows a more sizable lead for Graham. 

Two Democratic surveys last month also suggested the race was tightening, and private Democratic pollings shows the same thing. An internal survey from Cornell Belcher at brilliant corners Research & Strategies (conducted July 13-19) for Harrison’s campaign showed Graham with a 43 to 41 percent lead in a four-way race (including a Libertarian and a Constitution Party candidate), and also noted that Harrison was leading by 19 points among college-educated women and 7 points among suburban voters. An Anzalone Liszt Grove survey (conducted July 5-20) for the Lindsey Must Go super PAC showed Graham with a 49%-45% edge, underscoring still why it is much easier for a Republican than a Democrat to come close to 50% in the state. However, Democrats hope that with third-party choices on the ballot, that threshold will drop, but Republicans say they aren’t worried about such a scenario. 

Presidential polling shows a much closer race than President Trump’s 14 point win over Hillary Clinton four years ago. Those same Senate surveys show Trump’s lead is now between just 5 and 7 points, but if the presidential race nationally tightens that margin could widen for Trump, making things more difficult for Harrison. Still, it was South Carolina that gave Joe Biden a decisive primary victory back in February that put him on a glide path to the nomination, and Biden does well with Black voters and is a plausible alternative for moderates as well. Plus, Democrats hope that Biden’s selection of California Sen. Kamala Harris, the first Black woman ever on a presidential ticket, as his running mate will further excite the African-American base, especially Black women that Harrison very much needs to turn out. 

Several sources in the state point to one crucial decision by the Harrison campaign that has made him more competitive than Democrats in South Carolina usually are — going up early on TV with positive, biographical ads that were left unanswered by Graham for almost two months, with Harrison beginning ads in early April while Graham went on air in late May. Now, Graham’s latest TV ads tie Harrison to national Democrat and highlight praise he’s had for Hillary Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Harrison’s latest ad contrasts Graham’s travel expenses with the senator saying he would reauthorize COVID unemployment benefits “over our dead bodies,” a remark Democrats highlight as particularly tone-deaf as coronavirus deaths near 170,000 nationwide, including 2,260 in South Carolina as of Sunday. 

And even some Republicans in the state are somewhat skeptical that Graham’s efforts to cast Harrison as a far-left candidate will work. One admitted that Harrison is running “a centrist Democratic campaign focused on dinner table issues that has captured a lot of disaffected moderates” and working to capitalize on demographic realignments in the state. 

Harrison will also benefit from a competitive House race driving turnout in the 1st District with freshman Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham, based in Charleston and the Lowcountry, which could also mean a very close race at the presidential and Senate level in a district Trump carried by 13 points in 2016. Just last week, too, a state House seat special election within the 1st District flipped from red to blue by 20 points in a district that Trump had carried by 3 points but that Mitt Romney carried by 16 points in 2016, according to data from Daily Kos Elections

While there are still large hurdles that remain for Harrison to become the first Democrat elected to the Senate from South Carolina since 1998, it’s clear this race is becoming more competitive, and Graham faces an incredibly strong challenge. In the races in our Likely Republican column, this is also the one some national Republicans view as the more competitive. We are moving South Carolina from Likely to Lean Republican. 

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Meg Kinnard