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There has been no more surprising race on the Senate map than South Carolina. Even early this year, it looked like Sen. Lindsey Graham would cruise to re-election. Instead, the Republican incumbent finds himself in a tied race in both public and private surveys with challenger Jaime Harrison, who has proven to be perhaps Democrats’ best recruit and a fundraising behemoth.
“It’s a jump ball at this point,” said one South Carolina Republican strategist. “Jaime is peaking at exactly the right time and he’s got a deluge of money. [Harrison] is blocking every pass there is from Republicans.”
Even Democrats in and outside of the Palmetto State are surprised such a typically red state is truly in play. Many Republicans have privately voiced frustrations that Graham’s campaign didn’t take the challenge from Harrison — a charismatic 44-year-old African-American former state party chairman who tells a compelling story of growing up with a teen mother and being raised by his grandparents in impoverished Orangeburg — seriously enough from the get-go.
Harrison first went up on TV back in April with positive bio spots, and hasn’t gone dark since. That allowed Harrison to set the tenor of the race. And since then, he’s had a series of ads that are very clearly aimed at who they hope will be Graham’s Achilles Heel — white women. In several spots, middle age or senior women talk about how they were once longtime Graham voters but now see that he’s changed on health care and how Harrsion's "values" now more closely reflect their values. Harrison has made this race about character and in other Democratic ads they turn the tables and paint Graham as part of the "swamp," and that seems to be working.
Harrison started out the year by posting impressive fundraising totals each quarter — $7.37 million and $14 million respectively — and outraising Graham each quarter too. Democrats expect a historic third-quarter fundraising haul from Harrison too, who’s been raising money at a fast clip ($10.6 million in August alone) even before Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death last month where ActBlue donations poured into campaigns across the board.
All that has enabled Harrison to blanket the Palmetto State airwaves in a way no Democrat — or Republican either — has ever been able to do. As of Tuesday night, Harrison has spent or reserved time through Election Day on TV and digital ads of upwards of $60.3 million — an amount that’s sure to grow in the final weeks of the race. Senate Majority PAC and the DSCC have contributed too and are on air, but Harrison, who gets lower advertising rates, accounts for about 89% of the spending for Democrats. Graham, meanwhile, has spent or reserved just $20.6 million so far.
During the last full week of September, Harrison spent just over $6 million on TV. Last week, that amount rose to over $7.5 million. This week Harrison’s spending is at just over $8 million so far — only a fraction of what the incumbent is spending, even when aided by outside groups.
Graham’s hardly hiding his worry either. Just before the close of the third quarter fundraising books, he repeatedly appeared on Fox News shows to plead for cash, repeating his website and complaining he was being swamped by out of state money by liberals who hate him. It’s true — Graham has put himself in far more of a national lightning rod role than he ever was when he was the late Sen. John McCain’s sidekick. Now he’s far more closely aligned with Trump and the national GOP than he ever was, and the money is coming for him for sure.
Now, the Senate Leadership Fund has come in to help bail Graham out to the tune of $10 million so far spent or reserved through Election Day. (The fact that they’re also spending in Kansas, another usually ruby-red state at the federal level, shows how truly in danger the GOP’s Senate majority is).
Graham has been tying Harrison to Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer in ads, intoning that electing Harrison would be akin to putting a radical leftist agenda in charge. And he’s also hit Harrison on his past lobbying for The Podesta Group. But perhaps the best ads Graham can run to help boost his image came in the form of two different spots that started airing this weekend featuring praise from Graham’s junior colleague, Sen. Tim Scott, the chamber’s only Black Republican and by far the most popular current statewide elected official in the state.
However, there is one remaining Hail Mary for Graham — the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett that begin next week, in which he’ll have the starring role as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Republicans certainly hope that heavy coverage can help consolidate Republican votes and remind them why they want to vote for a GOP majority on judges, with Graham being the only way to get that.
At the candidates’ first debate this past Saturday, Graham repeatedly hammered home his sway on the court and judicial nominees, turning nearly every question back to Barrett or his support for Trump’s appointees. Harrison, in turn, evoked the coronavirus crisis and how badly it’s hit South Carolina — punctuated by a plexiglass shield he brought with him to the debate to separate himself from Graham. While the senator tested negative for COVID after being exposed to other senators who tested positive, there would still be a 14 day quarantine per CDC guidelines. In that regard, the chasm between them on the pandemic wasn’t just metaphorical, and Graham could face some blowback for pushing ahead with the hearings on such a rushed timeline even as two committee members have tested positive for the virus. Even some Republicans privately concede it was Harrison, not Graham, who came out looking stronger from that showdown.
The crosstabs in public polling — and what mirrors some private polling — show that Graham still has weaknesses among the GOP base. Overall, in the latest Quinnipiac University poll, Graham is underwater (43% fav/51% unfav), an 8 point gap that rose from five points in the same survey just two weeks prior. Eleven percent of Republicans have an unfavorable view of Graham, including 56 percent of women. Perhaps most troubling, though, is that by a 10 point margin (40% yes/50% no), voters say they do not believe that Graham is honest — and just three-quarters of Republicans believe he is, in fact, honest. That’s why Democrats think the Supreme Court argument hasn’t moved the race in the weeks since Ginsburg’s death given that the video of Graham saying in 2018 to “hold the tape” if a Supreme Court vacancy occurred during the last year of Trump’s term and Republicans tried to fill it.
Meanwhile, Harrison has a net favorable rating of +13 (48% fav/35% unfav), and 59% of voters say Harrison cares about average people (a stunning +34 margin) — compared to just 44% who say the same thing about Graham (for a -6 margin). Trump’s approval has also dropped in this poll, and he’s only leading by 1 point as well. While that may be a red flag, multiple sources confirm that Trump’s numbers have dropped even in South Carolina (a state he won by 14 points four years ago), and he’s likely on pace for a slim single-digit victory.
That calculus would certainly make it easier for Harrison to pull off the upset, and Joe Biden is expected to do far better than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, when she got just 41% in the state). Still, it is hard for a statewide Democrat in a federal race to get to 50 percent in a state like South Carolina, where 47 or even 48 percent has been the highest ceiling. But with a Constitution Party candidate, Bill Bledsoe, on the ballot, Democrats hope that some of those more conservative voters will cast a protest vote against Graham by ticking that box. However, last week Bledsoe — who didn’t have a website or active social media accounts — announced he was endorsing Graham, citing his work on judicial nominations. Graham’s campaign blasted out a statement. Nonetheless, Bledsoe will remain on the ballot. Republicans still remain hopeful his endorsement could neutralize that threat of peeling away votes (Bledsoe also ran in 2016 against Scott and got 2 percent of the vote), while Democrats think that the antipathy for Graham even among traditional Republican voters won’t evaporate and that he could still get 4 or even perhaps 5 points on the ballot, which could be determinative.
While South Carolina is certainly redder than its border states Georgia and North Carolina — two other Sun Belt states that have seen more rapid demographic and urban/suburban shifts than South Carolina — that doesn’t mean there aren’t underlying shifts here as well. As we detailed when we first moved this race from Solid to Likely Republican back in April, there are shifting areas here too, and not just in the changing Charleston-based 1st District (where surprise freshman Rep. Joe Cunningham is now in a Lean Democrat race) but also even in the typically reliably conservative Upstate core of Greenville/Spartanburg and along the Charlotte exurbs in York County along the border, and even in the Columbia suburbs too. Harrison’s hefty war chest has enabled him to spend heavily in those areas, with the most spent in the Upstate where Harrison does have a shot at flipping college-educated voters, especially college-educated suburban white women — exactly the type of voter his ads have been smartly designed to persuade. And he’s been able to buy considerable time in the Charlotte media market as well, which is already overrun and pricy due to the trio of competitive North Carolina races there at the presidential, gubernatorial and Senate level. Plus, Harrison appears to be hitting the targets right now he needs to excite and turn out the state's Black voters.
Ultimately, this race has earned a more competitive rating — underscoring just how fast the GOP majority is slipping away if they have to defend turf like this, and also how much Trump’s numbers have fallen across the board. We are moving South Carolina from Lean Republican to Toss Up.