South Carolina debate in question as Graham refuses to take COVID-19 test despite possible exposure

"It takes less than 30 minutes to get your nose swabbed," rival Jaime Harrison, who lost an aunt to COVID-19, says

Published October 9, 2020 5:09PM (EDT)

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

Despite recent exposure to at least one colleague on Capitol Hill with COVID-19, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has refused to take a test ahead of Friday's debate against Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison.

Harrison called on Graham on Thursday to "follow the example of Vice President Mike Pence and follow his own precedent from the last debate" by testing for COVID-19.

In response, the Graham campaign released its own statement calling the request an "11th hour demand" made "without any medical justification."

But Graham's recent exposure to Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utath, who recently tested positive for COVID-19, would put him at heightened risk. Another colleague, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who was also at the White House for the unveiling of Amy Coney Barrett's nomination to the Supreme Court, also tested positive for the disease.

"Mr. Harrison is demanding special treatment," Graham said. "South Carolinians do not appreciate Mr. Harrison putting himself above others. If Mr. Harrison is not able to interact with South Carolinians on the same terms they live their lives, he should not be their senator."

In addition to Harrison, the debate's moderator and two auxiliary panelists all agreed to take a test.

Graham, a three-term incumbent who has found himself locked in a dead heat with the well-funded Harrison, claimed to be following the advice of doctors. 

"I will continue to follow the guidance of my doctors — not my political opponent," he added.

Graham, who self-quarantined in March after he was exposed to the virus during a visit to President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago club, did not take similar steps in recent days. The Republican senator said he would allow his temperature to be taken ahead of Friday's scheduled debate, as previously agreed upon.

"Whether Mr. Harrison attends tomorrow's debate is his decision — not mine," Graham concluded. "I will be there."

"Lindsey is so desperate," Harrison said during a Friday appearance on "The View," reframing his position as a matter of "treating our brothers and sisters equally."

"We've let 3,500 people die in South Carolina because of the coronavirus," he said. "One of them was my aunt."

"The responsibility is not about us as individuals, but the people who are there. Hard-working people at that studio — and every single one of them is taking a test," Harrison said. "I'm taking a test right after this episode today, so why in the world can Lindsey Graham not just go and take a test?"

"It takes less than 30 minutes to go and get your nose swabbed," Harrison added. "Lindsey, what are you hiding? Why won't you take a test?"

After last week's debate, the Cook Political Report shifted the South Carolina Senate race from "lean Republican" to "toss-up," a nod in part to Harrison's continued strong performance in state polls and his national draw. The historically deep-red state had been viewed as a lock for Graham until Harrison's surge this summer.

The challenger, who last Saturday brought his own plexi-glass partition to the first debate in the wake of an outbreak among members of Trump's inner circle, threatened to withdraw from Friday's debate if Graham refused to get tested ahead of time.

"We need to take the threat of this pandemic seriously, and the people of South Carolina understand that," Harrison said in his Thursday night statement. "With even the president of the United States personally affected, it's time for every leader to put people before political campaigning."

While Graham tested negative ahead of last week's debate, he had attended a hearing with Lee on Oct. 1. Officials recommend a period of 10 to 14 days of quarantine following known exposure, and the debate will mark only eight days since Graham's possible exposure.

"Of course, the upcoming debates can be held and held safely," Harrison said. "But, if Sen. Graham will not take a coronavirus test, I cannot responsibly debate in person tomorrow night and allow politics to put my family, my campaign staff, Sen. Graham's staff and members of the media at unnecessary risk."

Graham spokesperson TW Arrighi told Salon on Friday that the senator would show up to the debate later in the evening without taking a test. A Harrison campaign spokesperson did not immediately reply when Salon asked if Harrison would abstain.

By Roger Sollenberger

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

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