"The fight of his political life": Lindsey Graham dead even with Jaime Harrison in new Senate poll

The poll shows Trump and Biden running even in a state that's voted GOP in every presidential election since 1980

Published October 1, 2020 10:38AM (EDT)

Lindsey Graham and Jaime Harrison (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Lindsey Graham and Jaime Harrison (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

A new Quinnipiac poll finds Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., locked in a 48-48 tie with Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison, a showing which the underdog has sustained for two months, and given the depth of his financial support, appears poised to carry into the election.

The results match a Sept. 16 Quinnipiac survey, which also showed each candidate pulling 48%. A Quinnipiac poll from early August also found the two even at 44%, and the Harrison campaign's internal surveys over the summer consistently showed a similar tight gap.

"There hasn't been a Democrat elected to the Senate from South Carolina since 1998," Quinnipiac University Polling Analyst Tim Malloy said in a news release. "Outspent and labeled by critics as an apologist for President Trump, Lindsey Graham is facing the fight of his political life."

"The momentum is on the side of this grassroots movement, and Lindsey knows it," Harrison campaign spokesperson Guy King told Salon. "This race is neck-and-neck, because as Lindsey Graham plays Washington political games. Jaime Harrison has kept this campaign laser-focused on South Carolina values and the issues facing folks here — like healthcare, broadband and fixing our crumbling roads. After 25 years in Washington, Lindsey Graham has changed and forgotten all about these problems."

While the poll shows that more voters in the state want to see the GOP retain control of the Senate versus a Democratic flip, the candidates' image ratings suggest that South Carolinians might be willing to draw a distinction when it comes to their own state. Forty-eight percent of voters view Harrison favorably, while 35% view him unfavorably. Graham polls in the reverse, with 43% holding a favorable view of the incumbent, and a majority of voters, 51%, viewing him unfavorably. Ninety-five percent of likely voters who chose a candidate say that they have made up their minds on the Senate race, while 4% say their preference could change before Election Day, according to the poll.

A spokesperson for the Graham campaign did not reply to Salon's request for comment.

At the national level, President Donald Trump polled 48% among South Carolinians against Democratic nominee Joe Biden's 47%. In the earlier Sept. 16 poll, Trump led Biden by a margin of 51% to 45%. However, Quinnipiac said the shift was not statistically significant.

Notably, a raft of research has found that the last two election cycles have challenged the conventional wisdom that voters tend to split tickets in hopes of striking an ideological balance, suggesting that if the South Carolina scales tip further towards Biden, it may not hurt Harrison's chances.

The survey also found voters split on the Supreme Court, as Graham, who chairs the Senate Judiciary committee, has announced plans to quickly confirm Amy Coney Barrett, Trump's nominee to fill the seat of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Forty-nine percent of South Carolina voters told Quinnipiac that the winner of the presidential election should fill the vacancy, and 47% say the seat should be filled by Trump.

An individual close to the Harrison campaign told Salon that observers were still uncertain about whether or how confirmation proceedings would sway voters in the Palmetto State — an opinion shared by top election expert Larry Sabato, whose Crystal Ball project last week nudged the state closer towards Harrison, from "likely Republican" to "lean Republican." The Cook Political Report pushed the seat "lean Republican" last month.

Graham, for his part, has used recent media appearances about confirmation hearings to complain that he was "getting killed financially." Harrison, the first Black chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, has consistently out-raised the three-term incumbent, suggesting the support of national resources and enthusiasm in addition to deep pockets.

In August alone, for instance, Harrison, a former longtime congressional staffer and Washington lobbyist, raised more than $10 million. Two weeks ago, his campaign claimed it raked in $2 million in two days. Additionally, the threat of a lasting ideological shift in the Supreme Court appears to have spurred left-leaning voters across the country, who have been pouring money into Democrat-backing groups, some of which will also help Harrison in his quest to unseat the man who oversaw the Kavanaugh hearings.

The trends have drawn comparisons to Beto O'Rourke's 2018 run at Sen. Ted Cruz's Republican seat in Texas. Sabato analysts point out that while South Carolina's electorate has not seen the same massive shifts as Texas, some metrics appear to line up. As an example, Crystal Ball notes O'Rourke's historically strong showing in the suburbs, a demographic which may offer Harrison a path to victory.

Should Harrison win, South Carolina — the state whose secession from the Union in 1860 kicked off the Civil War — would become the first state in U.S. history to send two Black senators to Capitol Hill at the same time. Harrison would join Sen. Tim Scott, who in 2013 was the only Black senator.

By Roger Sollenberger

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

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