The first time Senator Lindsey Graham was set to debate his Democratic challenger earlier this month, Jaime Harrison brought a plexiglass divider with him to protect himself from COVID-19 onstage. The next week, Graham, the Republican South Carolinian who used to be best known as John McCain’s sidekick and has since branded himself as one of Donald Trump’s most reliable wingmen, refused to take a test for the coronavirus, and their second debate was called off altogether. When I caught up with Harrison on the phone the next morning, a Saturday, he was still sputtering. “I’m dumbfounded! I don’t understand why this was such a big deal!” he told me almost as soon as he picked up. “When you’re a national leader like Lindsey Graham, when you’re one of the top leaders of the state of South Carolina — a state that is in the top ten in terms of the transmission of COVID — you would think you would want to illustrate to your folks good leadership. And he tried to make it out that this is all so difficult for folks at home! Just go to CVS, or so many clinics all around the state where you can get a COVID test and results in less than 30 minutes!” The 65-year-old Graham, who’s running for a fourth term in the Senate after three in the House, was set to lead the hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett starting the following Monday, with the ultimate goal of confirming the Trump nominee before Election Day. “I just don’t understand what he’s trying to hide, and what point he’s trying to make,” Harrison exhaled. “It’s sort of head-scratching!”
In a usual year, in a semi-normal political world, a Democrat running against an incumbent GOP senator in conservative South Carolina — especially if it’s someone as entrenched and D.C.-powerful as Graham, a former manager for the Bill Clinton impeachment hearings who won his last race by 15 points and who has, in fact, never faced a tough electoral challenge — wouldn’t garner much attention. But you may have noticed that this is not a normal year, including in South Carolina. When I first met Harrison over half a decade ago, he was a state Democratic Party chairman already talking about how his state was changing for the better. In terms of his own career trajectory, his colleagues tended to assume he would end up running for one of the state’s safely blue House seats someday. That was their expectation even when Harrison — a former aide to Congressman Jim Clyburn and then a lobbyist — ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic National Committee chairmanship in 2017 (a certain South Bend, Indiana, mayor also lost that race), and even when Tom Perez then named him an associate chairman tasked with working on the party’s southern outreach, starting with Doug Jones’s 2017 Senate race in Alabama.
But his abrupt deviation from expectations now looks, at the very least, wildly prescient. The 44-year-old Harrison is suddenly a national political celebrity for deciding to take on Graham. And with voting well underway around the country, Harrison’s years-long insistence that his state is changing more quickly than widely appreciated — and that it’s turning against Graham for his Trump-era reinvention — is becoming conventional wisdom. Shortly before Harrison and Graham were supposed to debate a second time, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rated the race a toss-up after a procession of polls showed the race effectively tied. The Sunday before Graham kicked off Barrett’s confirmation hearings, Harrison announced raising $57 million in the third quarter — such a hilariously big haul that it eclipsed the previous single-quarter fundraising record for a Senate race, set by Beto O’Rourke in 2018, by about 50 percent.
Harrison is watching all this unfold from his home in Columbia, where he’s Zooming into town halls and TV hits when he’s not teaching his 6-year-old son with his wife, a law professor. “I’m living the life of every working South Carolinian parent right now,” he said. “I know how difficult it is. It’s hard to juggle all of these things and do them all well, and that’s something Lindsey Graham can’t relate to: It’s just him. He can bounce around and do anything. But when you have a family and have kids, it’s more than yourself you have to worry about.” This wasn’t the plan, of course: Harrison had just launched a 46-county tour of the state, getting into the rhythm of what he called the “full-body experience” of in-person campaigning in the South, when the pandemic hit in March and he returned home. Facing the reality that Graham was infinitely better-known in the state than he was, Harrison started advertising on TV earlier than he’d planned to, hoping to catch voters’ eye with his story — he’s a Black man raised by his grandparents in Orangeburg who then went off to Yale and Georgetown Law — before calling out Graham’s shift from calling Trump a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot” in 2015 (at which time he was still close with Joe Biden) to becoming one of the president’s confidants and golf partners.
Combined with Trump’s plunge in popularity over the course of the pandemic, that messaging and his unprecedented cash flow appear to have Harrison genuinely within striking distance. Still, there are a few reasons no Democrat has won statewide in South Carolina since 2006, and national GOP groups have been pouring money into the state to save Graham’s seat and, they hope, their Senate majority. South Carolina has looked like more promising territory for Democrats in recent years largely thanks to an influx of new, more liberal voters, but their statewide candidates have consistently struggled to break the 50 percent mark, often topping out at 45 percent in the face of opposition largely from older white men. (While Obama got within 9 and 11 points there in his presidential runs, Trump won the state by 14.) Before he was confined to his home, Harrison’s campaign aimed to change that math in part by trying to register tens of thousands of eligible Black voters who hadn’t recently been participating in elections. Liberal groups found the task more difficult without being able to rely on in-person outreach, but as the summer wore on they found pockets of success, as well as surprising receptivity to Harrison among white suburbanites turning on Graham. “Most of it is [because of] Trump,” said Jim Hodges, the state’s last Democratic governor. “White suburban, college-educated women are deserting the Republican Party in droves, and suburban women in Charleston and Columbia aren’t any different from suburban women in Chicago. They look at Trump and the Republican Party and shake their head in disgust.” In practice, that means Harrison’s task in the final weeks of the campaign has been to try to win over any wavering Republicans he can find — and hope enough Trump supporters stay home. “What would get him over is former Graham supporters,” explained Clay Middleton, a longtime party strategist in South Carolina. Even then, a win might still hinge on a third-party candidate sapping a sliver of votes from Graham.
So despite his celebrity in #resistance circles, Harrison is hardly running a national progressive’s dream campaign, rarely going after Trump directly and instead implicitly promising a Senate tenure that could make life difficult for a President Biden: His messaging has leaned heavily on his willingness to work across the aisle, and he’s consistently said he’s against things like ending the legislative filibuster or packing the Supreme Court, let alone Medicare for All. He has also had little interest in engaging with Graham’s day-to-day work in Washington. “Folks have told me, you know, ‘A Supreme Court justice doesn’t put food on my table,’ ‘A Supreme Court justice doesn’t keep me from getting kicked out of my house,’” Harrison told me the second time we spoke, as Graham was getting Barrett’s hearings started. “Why is there so much urgency on that, and not urgency on helping us?” A few days later, Graham would use the hearings in an ask for campaign donations.
As we talked about his campaign and about how Graham has changed since Harrison first got to know him during their time working together — perfectly productively — on Capitol Hill, the candidate kept wondering aloud about the whereabouts of the next round of COVID relief. “You would think if you had the president’s ear then your state would not be 50th as it relates to PPP dollars going to your small businesses” in terms of dollars per worker, he said. “We have 750,000 people who are unemployed, 400,000 of them lost their health care as a result. And this guy said, ‘Over our dead bodies’ will we allow an extension of the unemployment benefit.” When Harrison gets worked up and his voice climbs slightly higher, he starts talking fast. But now he slowed down. “People are scared about their jobs; they’re scared about not being able to be with their loved ones. They have lost loved ones. Like me, I lost my aunt this summer, who was at a nursing home, to the coronavirus.” He paused briefly, then launched back into his baffled pitch. “So you would think that someone who had the ear of the president could do more for this state! This guy took vacation in August! I wish he would take the urgency he has for the Supreme Court seat and put it into passing the coronavirus-relief bill!”
We were nearing the end of our allotted time, but I wanted to get a sense of how Harrison was planning to close this campaign out, since he still probably needs every marginal vote left in the state to have a chance to win. I started to ask if he thinks his third debate with Graham would proceed as planned, and it was clear he was still exasperated. Graham committed to it, so it’d better go ahead, Harrison said. “The sad part of this whole ‘not getting tested for COVID’ thing is, you and I both know that every time Lindsey golfs with the president, he’s probably gotten tested for the coronavirus. I can almost guarantee you that! So why in the world could he, in a room with his constituents — because, yes, I’m his opponent, but I’m also still a constituent, and all of the hardworking people at the TV station, we all got coronavirus tests. Why in the world would he not do it again? It doesn’t make any sense in the world, and I still don’t understand it,” he said. Around that time, Graham was opening Barrett’s hearings, rushing to get her confirmed in record time to hand Trump a third Supreme Court justice in four years. “I think most people don’t understand it,” Harrison continued. “But we don’t understand this new version of Lindsey Graham anyway, so I guess it’s not a big surprise.”