Meet Jaime Harrison, the South Carolina Democrat taking the fight to Lindsey Graham

Jaime Harrison is focused and charismatic — and pulling in national dollars for his race against Trump's golf buddy

Published July 20, 2020 5:00AM (EDT)

Jaime Harrison (Nathan Ouellette/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Jaime Harrison (Nathan Ouellette/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Jaime Harrison is the South Carolina Democrat running against Sen. Lindsey Graham this fall. He's overperforming in the polls and blowing Graham out of the water in fundraising, topping the 25-year incumbent in both reporting periods this year. Last Wednesday, Harrison announced a $14 million haul, while Graham pulled in $8.4 million.

Democrats are typically reluctant to put hope in a state like South Carolina, even with a focused campaign and a charismatic candidate. The buckle of the Bible Belt, South Carolina voted for Democrats all the way from Reconstruction into the 1960s, flipping Republican, like most of the Deep South, in response to the civil rights movement. In 1964, South Carolina was one of just six states to vote for Barry Goldwater, the godfather of the modern conservative movement. It has gone red in every election since then, with the sole exception of 1976, when it went for Jimmy Carter, a moderate Democrat from neighboring Georgia. In 2016, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the Palmetto State by 14 points, 55 to 41%.

Still, Harrison inspires hope. It doesn't hurt that Graham has disappeared from the state almost entirely, seen now by many constituents as just another club in Donald Trump's golf bag. Though that obeisance has played well to the gallery on the right, many South Carolinians, including traditional Republicans, feel that Graham has gone MIA when they need him most. The acute crisis of the coronavirus pandemic seems to have driven home an old lesson: Distance can have real consequences, especially at the state level.

Harrison doesn't have the national name recognition that Graham does, but he's demonstrated the political chops to run a cagey, powerful campaign. He also stands to benefit as a Black man up against a white institutionalist in a revolutionary year for racial justice.

He also knows the race he wants to run. Harrison's rhetoric is polished, inclusive and relentlessly on message, and he knows he needs to put in the legwork. While he says he's trying to build a coalition "like Lindsey Graham 1.0," a bird's-eye view suggests something more like Beto O'Rourke 2.0: a blue streak in a red state, against tall odds (although the pandemic has blunted Harrison's plans for county-by-county barnstorming).

But while Harrison has pulled off the newcomer look, he's a total insider. His trajectory is the stuff of American myth: He grew up poor in rural Orangeburg, but went to Yale, followed by Georgetown Law. After graduation he signed on as a staffer to South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, where Harrison worked on the Affordable Care Act and eventually rose to executive director of the House Democratic Caucus.

After five years in Clyburn's office, Harrison moved to the Podesta Group, now defunct but at the time among the largest Democratic lobbying shops in Washington. His personal client list, however, would give many left-liberal voters pause: Walmart, Boeing, General Dynamics, Merck, Lockheed Martin, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Harrah's Casinos, the pro-coal special interest group American Coalition for Clean Coal — it's a lot to take in at once.

Such a résumé might be enough to tank him in a liberal stronghold or a national race (it might have derailed his 2017 bid for chair of the Democratic National Committee), but it's no poison pill in a place like South Carolina.

Harrison arrived at Clyburn's office $160,000 in debt, he says, and over the next few years put his salary toward paying that down and helping his mother meet her financial obligations at home. His latest available financial disclosure form, filed in August 2019, lists between $1.1 million and $3.5 million in personal assets. He's come a long way from Orangeburg.

But throughout his time in D.C., Harrison has kept one foot in South Carolina. In 2013 he became the state Democratic Party chair, and in 2016 left Podesta Group for good. He ran for DNC chair, but dropped out to endorse Tom Perez, who went on to win.

Harrison married Marie Boyd, a graduate from Harvard and Yale Law who now teaches at the University of South Carolina School of Law. She's one of the country's top experts in food and drug regulation, and, according to her university biography, her research focuses on cosmetics regulation and the regulation of insects as human food.

Salon's interview with Harrison will publish in two parts. This, the first, will focus on the race against Graham in South Carolina; the second will address policy and his experience in Washington. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

I'd like to start with your background growing up in Orangeburg, which was ground zero for civil rights and also for police violence. How did that experience shape you, in terms of your professional trajectory and the way you see the world today? Especially in the context of the social justice movement sweeping the country these last months.

Well, listen. Growing up in Orangeburg was tough. There were a lot of days that we worried about how we're going to get our next meal. A lot of nights doing homework in the dark because we couldn't pay the electric bill. I even remember mornings when I got up and had to eat my cereal with water because we couldn't afford a carton of milk. Despite all that, despite not having much in terms of material wealth, my family was just rich in terms of their character and their values and they taught me the importance of working hard. They taught me the importance of giving back.

I couldn't achieve what I have achieved in life without the love and support of my family and mentors and the community. What I see that I'm doing now is repaying that debt to Orangeburg and the people there. That's why I went back home and taught high school. That's why I worked at College Summit, which is a nonprofit to help low-income kids get into college. It's why I worked on Capitol Hill and tried to do all that I could in order to make South Carolina a better place for all families, including my own.

This is about bringing hope back to folks. It was hope that helped me get through the hard times that I experienced growing up. I know how important hope is for a lot of these folks in these communities. The sad thing to say about that is, there are a lot of folks that I've met and talked to who just don't have much hope anymore.

What have they lost hope in?

That things are going to get better. That the lives of their kids will be better than their own. There are folks who've been stuck in poverty for generations here and, instead of things getting better, they've actually gotten worse.

Now the coronavirus has just made it worse. This is a state with huge health disparities, where four of our rural hospitals had to close over the past few years. There's 200,000 people who don't have health care, but they would have had health care if they lived in any place under Medicaid expansion. One statistic that just continues to blow me away: Two years ago, 14 of our 46 counties had no OB-GYN.

Education is a huge issue in many communities here. Our Department of Education says there have been 17,000 kids that their schools have not heard from since March. And many of these kids, we know, are low-income, minority, rural, and they live in communities that have no access to broadband.

In South Carolina, 30% of our rural communities have no broadband access. And some of the communities that do have access, it's so slow that it's slower than what you would find in places like Cuba and Venezuela. 

There are fundamental issues and problems that the coronavirus is exacerbating, but have been here because we just don't have leadership in South Carolina. We have leaders who don't have a vision and are more concerned with their own own political Washington needs or their own — to use Lindsey Graham's language — "political relevance," rather than the list of things that people are struggling with here on a daily basis. That's why we got to bring hope back. That's why they need something else to believe in, that things will get better. You just got to bring back the leadership in order to make it better.

What you're pointing out is that South Carolina is a complicated state. A lot of things overlap in weird, inverted ways, especially when it comes to race. The state is seen as a kingmaker for the Democratic Party. It was Joe Biden's firewall, where Bernie Sanders' progressive momentum was stopped by the nod of James Clyburn, who you worked for. But when you're running for a statewide position, you have to face a broader population, which is majority white and overwhelmingly conservative.

You speak about appealing to rural voters. I'd like to know how you approach that strange Venn diagram overlap and how you plan to appeal to white independents or even white Republicans who, as you say, are suffering too.

Listen. One of the very first things I said on this campaign, and it is the gospel of Jaime, is that, at the end of the day, this race is not about Democrats versus Republicans. This is not about progressive versus conservative. It is about doing what is right versus what's wrong.

That's really what I fundamentally believe, because, when you look at these issues in South Carolina, these issues aren't partisan. When a rural hospital closes, it doesn't matter whether you're a Democrat or Republican if you live in that community. It is just not about that. It's about an issue of life and death.

Don't you think it's still an issue of black and white, though? To put it bluntly.

No. No. It is not.

In South Carolina? Really?

Part of the reason why it's not is because rural South Carolina is just as diverse as urban South Carolina. I've lived in a rural community. I went to school with white folks and Black folks. I went to the grocery store with white folks and Black folks. I went to the flea market with white folks and Black folks. If our hospital closed in Orangeburg, who will it impact? White folks and Black folks. Folks that vote for Democrats, folks that vote for Republicans.

Some of these issues aren't partisan issues and they shouldn't be partisan issues. They should just be about right versus wrong.

Look, if you live in these communities that don't have internet, it doesn't matter if you voted for Donald Trump or voted for Hillary Clinton, if you're voting for Joe Biden or Jaime or Lindsey Graham. You live in a community that doesn't have access to the internet, so how can you expect your kids to be successful and compete with the rest of the world, when they can't even connect with the rest of the world? That is not a partisan issue. That is not a Washington, D.C., Democrat, red-versus-blue type thing. It's just the fundamental issues about what people need in order to be successful.

What do they need in order to live the American dream? That's what I'm fighting for and that's how I'm trying to talk to the people in South Carolina. Don't allow people to put you in these camps when, at the end of the day, you just need a job or you need your hospital to be open or you just need internet coming into your household. That should not have to be a partisan issue, but some of our folks are making it one.

I understand the aspirational stuff there. I lived in Milledgeville, Georgia, for four years. It was, as you describe, diverse, with a majority Black population, rural and very poor. But there's a stark split between white and Black communities. White and Black funeral homes. White and Black colleges, even. There are no signs, but it's still that way. And that racial split also follows partisan lines. Do you view white voters in those communities as not just seeing the same problems that you do, but seeing them the same way you do? Does that aspirational message really transcend party and race in practical terms?

It does. Listen, I was in Lancaster County, South Carolina, right before the coronavirus. This is a county that, I think, went for Donald Trump 61 to 35. Lancaster's right on the border of North Carolina and South Carolina, right across from Charlotte. I was going to talk to a group of seniors, and I pull into the parking lot and we had about 30 RSVPs for the event. 

I walk into this senior facility and, man, I almost fell over. There were well over 200 people in the room. And the vast majority, I would say 95% of them, were white. That has not been the demographic historically for a Democrat in South Carolina.

When I walked into the room — and I came in through the back and their backs were turned to me when I was walking in — somebody noticed me and said, "Oh, there he is." And they all turned around and they stood up and they all started clapping and chanting, "Send Lindsey home. Send Lindsey home."

I know a lot of folks outside South Carolina don't want to believe in hope for what they call "ruby-red South Carolina," but the winds of change are blowing and they're blowing through the South. Just a few days later, I go down to Beaufort County. That's where Hilton Head is. As you know, a lot of retirees, a lot of non-Democrats. Donald Trump won the county overwhelmingly.

And we went to church: Jam-packed, man. There were people out in the hallway waiting to get in. Again, overwhelmingly non-African-American group there, seniors and retirees very interested in seeing some change. And what I hear from some of them is, "I don't know who this Lindsey Graham is." They say the same thing that I've said in the past: I respected Lindsey Graham. 

When John McCain was alive, I thought Lindsey was one of those people who, even though I didn't agree with him on everything policy-wise, I thought he was someone who could rise above the political frame, do what was in the best interest of our state and our country. But the constant refrain I hear about Lindsey Graham is, "What happened to Lindsey?" I hear that from Democrats, I hear that from independents and I hear it from Republicans as well. We're starting to see some shifting in the sand here, and that's why I know that this is different.. This New South that I've been talking about is starting to emerge.

What's your operational strategy? Both getting out the Democratic vote and also trying to wrangle people who might be on the fence, Republicans who might be open to leaving Graham?

When you look at Barack Obama in 2012, he performed a single point lower here than he did in Georgia, despite zero investment here by the presidential campaign. And we saw with Stacey Abrams in Georgia, we saw with Andy Beshear in Kentucky and Doug Jones in Alabama, where Democrats have shown in recent years that a strong campaign with a big candidate and the right types of messages can be extremely competitive in the South.

And we've already seen change here. Folks told us that we couldn't pick up a congressional district, and guess what we did in 2018? Joe Cunningham won a district that we hadn't won in 20, 30 years. And we won a state Senate race that year that we hadn't won in 20, 30 years. For the first time, we have a Democratic-controlled city council in Greenville, the heart of the conservative vote.

We saw this energy on full display in February, because we broke the primary fundraising record from 2008. We've gotten donations from all 46 counties here in South Carolina. We have recruited an army of volunteers. I think we've gotten over 5,000 volunteers that have signed up in the state in order to help. And I can tell you, I've been working on elections since I was 16 years old. I have never seen that type of energy on the ground. This is a grassroots movement like we have never seen before.

I know a lot of people love to point back to history and they say, "Well, a Democrat hasn't won in 20 years." Whatever. There has never been a race like this in South Carolina. You can't look at history to dictate where we're going to go in November because we're writing the history right now.

My entire life, people have told me that I couldn't do certain things. They told me I couldn't go to college. They told me I couldn't go to Yale, Georgetown, couldn't end up doing much on Capitol Hill. Couldn't be party chair. And my response has always been, "Watch me."

When I got into this race on Feb. 10, 2019, folks said, "You're not going to beat a 25-plus year incumbent, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, golf partner of the president. It's nice that you're trying." They'd pat me on the shoulder. And I said to myself, "Watch me."

Not only will we compete, but we are going to win this race. The numbers are demonstrating that. We're just going to keep pushing and folks can continue to watch. They'll believe us on Nov. 3.

Is part of your strategy that the Republican Party is possibly fracturing in the state? That maybe Republicans who feel disaffected with Graham won't go for you, but they might pull for a Libertarian, or even someone who's running an insane far-right campaign?

My grandma always taught me, "Jaime, you control what you can control and the rest you just leave out there." I'm focused on my race, on appealing to Democrats and independents — and I'd say I'm beating Graham among independents in some of the recent polls. I'm appealing to Republicans, too.

In essence, I'm trying to build a coalition, one like Lindsey Graham 1.0 had, one he used to have, but that's a little modified to fit me. That's what I'm trying to do.

Republicans are doing their best to cast doubt on the electoral system, to undermine public confidence in the institutions that will safeguard the exchange of power. Do you anticipate something dirty in South Carolina? If I were in your position, that would be at the front of my mind, especially given the firestorm around politics of race and social justice right now.

Yeah. Listen, there's a history of voter suppression in the South and, statistically, here in South Carolina. You remember Lee Atwater was from South Carolina. I'm fully aware of the tricks that are often played in elections here in South Carolina. And we're going to be proactive because this is the thing that I believe in, to the core of who I am, that probably the most fundamental right that we have as American citizens is our right to vote. I will go with every breath in my body to make sure that we never infringe upon that right of any American, Democrat or Republican. 

We have sent our sons and daughters overseas to risk their lives for that right for other people in other nations, so I'd be damned if I'm a leader in this country and I sit on the sidelines and allow people to infringe upon that right, the rights of folks here in South Carolina or across the country. Too many people have lost their lives, particularly in the African-American community, for the right to vote. I stand in their shadows and I am standing on their shoulders. When I'm in the United States Senate, that will be some of the first legislation that I will push for, in terms of protecting the right to vote for all Americans.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

MORE FROM Roger Sollenberger

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