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Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, faces toughest reelection challenge in S.C.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) gives a thumbs-up outside the White House ahead of President Trump's acceptance speech for the Republican Party’s nomination for reelection at the Republican National Convention on Aug. 27.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) gives a thumbs-up outside the White House ahead of President Trump's acceptance speech for the Republican Party’s nomination for reelection at the Republican National Convention on Aug. 27. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

CHARLESTON, S.C. — With lightning flashes of a South Carolina summer thunderstorm blazing the sky behind him last month, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R) unleashed an angry and sometimes profane, if contrived, case for reelection.

“Don’t buy this bull---- about Joe Cunningham being some kind of moderate,” he told a crowd of GOP faithful protected under a roof. “There’s nothing moderate coming out of the House of Representatives. If [Democrats] get the House, the Senate and the White House, then God help us all. Puerto Rico will be a state. Then D.C. will be a state. They’ll pack the Supreme Court. They’ll change all the rules.”

Graham isn’t running against Rep. Joe Cunningham, a Democrat from Charleston who won an unlikely congressional bid in 2018. But as Graham faces his most challenging campaign for Senate yet this November, Cunningham is on his mind.

“What the hell happened? How did we lose this seat?” Graham asked the crowd. “Here’s the deal: We’re not going to do it again, right?”

Graham, 65, has long been a shoo-in in South Carolina, winning Senate races by double digits in three successive races. But now, he is locked in a tight race with Jaime Harrison, 44, who has energized the Black community and suburbs amid significant changes in the state’s population. Graham is being far outspent by Harrison, who has raised a stunning $29 million and has about $10 million for the final stretch.

“He’s going to raise probably $50 million,” Graham said in a recent interview. “If you’d told me that in the beginning, I wouldn’t believe it. The liberal base is very activated to come after me because of [Supreme Court Justice Brett M.] Kavanaugh. The other unpardonable sin is to try and help President Trump. The hatred for Trump and anyone helping Trump is pretty high.”

Graham was once a confidant of the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and was popular among South Carolina’s moderate country club Republicans and even some Democrats. He had called Trump “nuts” and has long drawn skepticism from hard-right conservatives.

Now, he is Trump’s closest ally in the Senate and a frequent golfing partner. He is trying to sell a message to both crowds — the conservatives who viewed him as a Republican in name only and the moderates who think he is an opportunist too close to Trump — while never veering from the president.

In the fallout from the forthcoming book about Trump by The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, Graham drew the wrath of Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who blamed the senator for urging Trump to talk to Woodward and questioned Graham’s GOP loyalties. In the course of 18 interviews with Woodward, Trump said he played down the devastating threat of the coronavirus.

“Lindsey Graham is supposed to be a Republican, so why would he do something like that?” Carlson asked on his program Wednesday night, ticking off policies on which Trump and Graham have split.

Woodward book: Trump says he knew coronavirus was ‘deadly’ and worse than the flu while intentionally misleading Americans

Like he did on a recent evening in Charleston, the senator works to rile up voters with fusillades against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and other Washington Democrats, and highlights his friendship with Trump, like he did in a recent mailer, and what he depicts as unfair attacks against him. He loves to raise his fiery role in confirming Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

It is red meat for a center-right state.

But Graham, a political animal who understands South Carolina from 25 years of representing the state in the House and the Senate, is creating some political distance with the president back home, concerned about suburban voters.

Trump is “in trouble in the South Carolina suburbs” outside Charleston, Columbia and Greenville, among other places, where some have grown tired of “his behavior and his rhetoric,” Graham said. “He’s gotten the big things right,” the senator said of Trump.

“I’ll be glad to campaign for the president. If anyone asks me, I think Joe Biden is one of the most decent people in the country,” he said of his former Senate colleague and the Democratic presidential nominee, as he crossed the state in a car from Charleston to Seneca, where he lives. “You’re not going to hear me say anything bad about Joe Biden.”

At the same time, Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is leading his panel’s election-year investigation of the actions of the Obama-Biden administration and the origins of the FBI’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.

In reversal, Trump to ban oil drilling off coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina

In his most recent reversal, Graham welcomed Trump backing a moratorium on oil and gas drilling off South Carolina, eight years after the senator sponsored legislation to open the coast to drilling. The move was a stark about-face for Trump as his ban applied only to Republican-led states, including the key electoral battleground of Florida.

Flooding the airwaves

Could South Carolina go Democratic? Could Graham lose? Even some of the state’s die-hard Democrats doubt it. Harrison concedes it’s a tough race.

“Jaime Harrison still has an uphill battle to win in November,” said Amanda Loveday, the co-chairman of Biden’s national PAC and the former executive director of the state’s Democratic Party under Harrison, who was the party chairman. “To win statewide as a Democrat, there has to be a perfect storm.”

Loveday said that Harrison’s compelling personal story — the son of a single teenage mother who was raised by his grandparents in South Carolina, graduated from Yale University and Georgetown Law School, and then returned home to buy his grandparents a house — plus his prodigious fundraising and nationwide momentum — make him a formidable candidate.

As Cunningham showed in his 2018 win, Democrats have scored inroads in South Carolina, where Fortune 500 companies such as Boeing have populated some of the state’s biggest cities and more liberal retirees have moved in.

In a potentially worrisome sign for Graham, Harrison noted that Spencer Wetmore, a Democrat, easily won a special election in August against Republican Josh Stokes for State House District 115, which includes reliably Republican James and Kiawah islands. The seat became vacant after Trump nominated Peter McCoy, its Republican representative, for a U.S. attorney post. McCoy first won the seat with 68 percent in 2012.

“That was a district that Mitt Romney carried over Obama by almost 15 points,” Harrison said in a recent interview, referring to the 2012 presidential election. “I think that indicates something folks aren’t really talking about in terms of my race versus Lindsey. They’re not enthusiastically supporting him as opposed to the energy we’re feeling.”

Harrison raised about $10.6 million in August, according to Federal Election Commission reports, more than Graham’s entire second-quarter haul. Polls show Harrison within a few points, or tied, with Graham. A Quinnipiac University poll in August indicated that the candidates are tied at 44 percent — a startling statistic that Harrison used for big fundraising.

Harrison is flooding the airwaves — on a recent afternoon in Columbia, his advertisements appeared four times on multiple networks — and attracted attention from donors and Democratic groups often wary of spending money in a conservative state because it would be wasted.

“South Carolina is really a sleeper race,” said JB Poersch, the head of the Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic group. “Jaime Harrison is going to galvanize African Americans in South Carolina. He could win.”

Trump who? Senate GOP candidates in tight races avoid any mention of the president in campaign ads.

Several respected Republican strategists in Washington and Columbia said they think Graham still maintains a lead, and Graham dismissed the polling in a recent interview.

What a lot of strategists, and privately even some Democrats, don’t see is how Harrison can win in South Carolina when Trump is on the ballot. MAGA signs dot the roadways, and turnout will inevitably be higher in a presidential election. Trump won South Carolina by 14 points in 2016. Harrison, by the accounts of several strategists in the state, would need to win 35 to 40 percent of the white vote.

Several other Republicans and Democrats close to the race share that assessment. In 1988, 17 of 33 candidates won Senate races despite their states backing the opposing party’s presidential nominee. In 2016, the number was zero.

“How many Trump-Harrison voters are there really going to be?” one prominent Democrat involved in the race asked, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly. “I don’t think there will be many.”

Voters have mainly gotten to know Harrison, a former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, through gauzy advertisements that highlight his biography.

In a recent interview, Harrison said that because he is borderline diabetic — a condition that killed his grandfather and puts him at increased risk of covid-19 complications — he has opted to pursue his Senate race entirely through virtual and on-camera appearances. Graham has campaigned some in South Carolina, but not nearly as much as he usually would, and has spent weekends with the president at Trump’s golf clubs in Virginia and New Jersey.

Harrison regularly talks about the coronavirus, while Graham talks less — a mirror of the presidential race from their respective parties.

Among Harrison’s sharpest attacks on Graham: He is too close to Trump, he is out of touch with South Carolinians hurt by the pandemic and the onetime presidential candidate is too focused on raising his own profile. Harrison has highlighted Graham’s efforts to have coronavirus unemployment checks slashed and his comments that an extra $600 a week is too generous and disincentivizes people to return to work.

“People are legitimately asking right now, ‘Lindsey, what have you done for us recently?’ ” Harrison said in a recent interview. “It used to be in the past, you always thought Lindsey was doing stuff for us. But since this last term, he’s been too much on his own theatrics and political relevance. Getting in front of every TV camera he can. He doesn’t understand that when you lose your job, it also means you lose your health benefits.”

Graham said his position resonates with conservative South Carolina.

“It is enormously unpopular in South Carolina to pay people more not to work than to work,” he said.

Some Graham voters have begun to worry. Allison Miller, a Trump supporter and poll worker watching the senator at a recent event, said Harrison could win. During the past several elections at her northern Charleston County polling place, turnout by women and minorities has exploded, she said. The frenzy of excitement for Trump among young and old has worn off, she fears, and that could affect down-ballot races like this one.

“And I’m not going to lie when I tell you that I think some Republicans are lazy and apathetic. We are conservative. We are silent. We don’t get out there. We’re not going to riot. We’re not going to protest. That’s a lot of the old hard-line Republicans,” she said.

Waving her hands at the muted scene at a Graham rally, she said, “I mean, do you see a lot of excitement here? I’m sorry. Then do you see a Democratic rally? I mean, them people are on fire.”

'He's radical'

One night, Harrison and Graham held concurrent but wildly divergent events that highlighted differences in policy and campaigning during the pandemic. From the comfort of his home, Harrison’s town hall meeting, a virtual get-out-the-vote event dubbed “Generation Next,” featured student leaders from across South Carolina and drew a live audience of 2,200.

“I’ve been doing this since I was 16 and I can’t remember a campaign like this — and I’m not saying that because it’s my own. I’m just blown away by the excitement and the energy in the base,” Harrison said. He regularly talks about the coronavirus and economic pain in South Carolina. One of the town hall participants, Javonni Ayers, president of the Student Government Association at South Carolina State University, epitomized the anxiety felt about student loans, job prospects and the coronavirus that he hears daily from potential young constituents.

Ayers said that she not only has lost several family members to covid-19, but that her sister has the disease and is in quarantine in Chicago. To keep her family safe, Ayers makes sure her circle, and travel, remain tight. “My mother has underlying health issues,” she told Harrison during the town hall event. “It would hurt me to my soul if I caused them to catch the virus.”

The crowd was diverse, as most of Harrison’s events have been, and far younger than Graham’s audiences. Harrison has made the coronavirus a central part of his events, while Graham has not. The state had a spike in cases earlier this summer, but many have resisted masks. Large weddings have continued indoors, and restaurants have returned to indoor dining. On a recent morning at Just Us Cafe, a breakfast spot in West Columbia, diners were overwhelmingly without masks, with many wearing Trump hats and shirts.

At a Graham event, the senator spoke atop a picnic table at an outdoor rally at a Charleston Elks Lodge before about 150 Republican faithful. Masks were supposedly required, although not everyone thought they were a good idea.

Graham made no mention of the pandemic, but he did call Harrison a radical, accusing him of supporting the Green New Deal, socialism, Medicare-for-all and defunding police.

After the speech, Shelley Choquette, 56, and Charlie Fowler, 63, described themselves as strong Trump supporters. Although they’re less enthusiastic about Graham, Choquette said his speech played well. “I don’t know enough to really talk about Lindsey,” she said. “But I do know I’m conservative and the country that I was raised in is going the opposite direction, and that’s very scary to me,” she said.

Fowler mentioned South Carolina’s changing demographics, and said that with Cunningham’s Charleston-propelled victory, Harrison has a better chance than any Democrat in recent years. But that he’s still a long shot.

“He’ll probably get Greenville. And he may get the 1st [Congresssional] District. But I agree with Shelley. I think there’s a silent majority. Just like there was with Trump.”

Graham recently aired an ad attacking Harrison for working as a lobbyist before running for the seat — and plans a slate of ads this fall showing his influence in the Senate and with the president while labeling Harrison as a puppet of Pelosi.

“The more liberal he becomes in the eyes of the voters, the better I will do,” Graham said as he crossed the state.

Harrison said many attacks are off-base, laughing, for instance, when asked if he is a socialist. He has been careful not to take too many specific policy positions on national issues or closely align himself with national Democrats, knowing that doing so would be perilous in South Carolina.

“Lindsey can say all this crazy stuff,” he said. “I’m not for the Green New Deal. I never said so. I’m not supporting Medicare-for-all.”

After Graham ended an interview recently linking Harrison to Pelosi and others, an aide called. The senator wanted to say that he, too, was a bulwark against Sanders having more influence.

When he took the microphone atop a picnic table, Graham played to the anxiety of the crowd, “If we don’t win this election, everything you believe about America is going to change,” he said. “Somebody asked me do I think my opponent is radical? Hell yes, he’s radical.”

He then spoke about Trump, calling the man he once derided as “crazy” and a “race-baiting xenophobic bigot” as “my new best friend.”