For some, the story might be just a bit of family lore. For Jaime Harrison, it’s part of why he’s running for the seat Thurmond once held.
“She said, ‘You know, they never asked me what race I was or what party I belonged to,’ ” he remembers. “ ‘All they knew was that I was a constituent and that I needed help.’ Now when I think about what the role of a U.S. senator is all about, it’s just that.”
Yet the Democrat knows he’ll need far more than anecdotes in his fight against incumbent Lindsey O. Graham. Harrison touts marquee credentials and deep connections in both South Carolina and Washington. And armed with a record haul of campaign dollars, he hopes to energize not only the state’s nearly 1 million nonwhite voters, but Republican and independent moderates disaffected by Graham’s embrace of President Trump. While he’s facing long odds, Harrison is arguably Graham’s strongest opponent since his first Senate run in 2002.
“It’s an uphill battle, no question, but Jaime is uniquely qualified,” said House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who hired Harrison as floor director in the early 2000s. “He has the kind of life experiences that allow him to really connect with ordinary people.”
Those experiences are rooted in Orangeburg, a predominantly African American city of about 13,000 and a place with outsize historical significance. In the 1960s, thanks in part to students from its two black colleges, Orangeburg was at the center of civil rights activism. In 1968, state troopers fired on 200 protesters there, wounding 28 and killing three. Dubbed the Orangeburg Massacre, it was among the era’s most violent events.
Harrison, who was born in 1976, recalls a poor but peaceful community. He was raised as much by his grandparents — neither of whom went past the eighth grade — as by his mother. His father was absentee.
He was in junior high when his grandparents were defrauded out of their mobile home. “I never saw my grandfather cry till that moment,” he recounted recently. They moved to a dingy cinder-block triplex with sweltering summer nights, living at times on welfare and food stamps. A scholarship to Yale University reached their battered mailbox in 1994, but it still left Harrison $2,500 short for tuition until a cigar-chomping African American businessman stepped in and gave him a job to bridge the gap.
“You never know when you lend somebody a hand, what that means for the rest of their lives,” Harrison said. “That’s the most important thing for me. Because I know how challenging it is when you’re poor in this state.”
At this point, his résumé lists Yale, Georgetown University Law School and a stint as chief operating officer for a nonprofit geared to helping low-income students reach college. He worked several years as a lobbyist for the Podesta Group in Washington, where his clients included Walmart as well as the South Carolina Ports Authority on its effort to deepen Charleston Harbor for bigger cargo ships. After moving back to South Carolina in 2013 to lead the state Democratic Party — the first African American to do so — Harrison was named associate chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 2017.
He launched his Senate campaign in late May, appalled by Graham’s treatment of Christine Blasey Ford during Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing and angered by his extreme turnaround on the president. The senator, who once likened the party’s potential nomination of Trump to the Titanic disaster, is now one of his most fervent, unwavering defenders, even calling for investigations of his political rivals.
“This is a guy that I believed . . . even if I disagreed with him on policy, that at the end of the day he would do what’s in the best interest of the state and the country,” Harrison said over lunch at the venerable barbecue joint Earl Dukes. “But now we see Lindsey Graham is only going to do what’s in the best interest of Lindsey Graham. Here is a guy who hasn’t done a town hall in South Carolina in probably over two years.”
Both the senator’s office and his campaign office declined to comment. But Joe Jackson, a spokesman for the South Carolina Republican Party, blasted Harrison as “a former D.C. lobbyist who supports impeaching President Trump and creating big-government programs like the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all. He’s going to spend all of his time — and his millions of dollars from Hollywood liberals — attacking Senator Graham because South Carolinians aren’t buying the socialist agenda he’s selling.”
Harrison’s campaign raised $4 million by October, with $2.2 million of that coming in the third quarter, a South Carolina party record. Filings show it has garnered substantial support from union interests as well as Hollywood, with Star Wars star Mark Hamill even tweeting on his behalf. Yet donations of less than $200 totaled more than $1 million.
By contrast, Graham raised $3.3 million during the third quarter, a record for any South Carolina candidate.
Three other Democrats, Justin Wooton, William Stone and former Georgia state legislator Gloria Tinubu, also have announced candidacies but have drawn little support or contributions.
Todd Shaw, a University of South Carolina political science professor, gives Harrison an outside chance based on data he’s seen and Democratic wins this fall in Kentucky and Louisiana. Galvanized Democrats and discouraged Republicans are key, Shaw stressed. Harrison “has to go after Graham as to whether he’s been responsive to South Carolinians.”
Anne Jennings, a retired librarian and lifelong Republican, has rejected Trump because of what she describes as his mocking and bullying behavior. She likens Graham’s support for the president to “an indoctrination” and says others within her circle of mostly Republican book club friends in Charleston have also soured on the senator.
“I don’t think Harrison would have had a chance in hell six months ago,” noted Jennings, who is 64. “But I think a lot of people that formerly voted for Graham have been turned off.”
One independent voter in that category is 61-year-old Lee Clark of Charleston. Clark operates four garment factories in Bangladesh and envisioned benefits from Trump’s Chinese tariffs; instead, Chinese manufacturers simply moved to Cambodia and Myanmar. In his view, Graham has ignored state trade issues to stick with Trump.
“Lindsey wavers like the flag,” Clark said. “He’s a political hack, and I’m just so sick of him.”
Harrison says he plans to hammer Graham on health care given the state’s loss of four rural hospitals during the past few years. He also will emphasize economic issues and the hit that South Carolina, home to major manufacturing by foreign car companies, has taken from Trump’s tariffs.
“We’re in the top 10 of states in terms of how tariffs impact this country,” he said, driving past an automotive ball-bearing plant that just announced its 2021 closure after nearly 45 years in operation. “It’s going to create a huge hole in the economy.”
Politically, Harrison knows what he’s up against. South Carolina’s last Democratic senator, Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, retired in 2005. During Graham’s last election, he bested his Democratic opponent by nearly 15 percentage points — despite having the highest disapproval rating of any GOP candidate in South Carolina. Two years later, Trump claimed South Carolina with a comparable 54.9 percent of the vote.
“Listen, running against Senator Graham is indeed a tough climb, but it is equally a hill worth climbing,” he said. “I’ve faced things people have deemed impossible my entire life, and this is yet another journey where I prove that in America, the impossible is always possible.”