GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham defeats Jaime Harrison to win a fourth term representing South Carolina

The close race in the conservative stronghold drew national attention and top fundraising dollars

Published November 3, 2020 10:24PM (EST)

 Committee chairman U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)  (Stefani Reynolds - Pool/Getty Images)
Committee chairman U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (Stefani Reynolds - Pool/Getty Images)

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has fended off Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison in the deep red state of South Carolina, the Associated Press projects.

The contest was among the most-watched races across the country this year, one which embodied some of the most salient issues of the campaign cycle: Trumpism, the national reckoning on race, the coronavirus pandemic and — in the final weeks — the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

The candidates ran the home stretch in a dead heat, with polls showing Harrison pulling even in the final months of the race. The underdog proved to be a fundraising juggernaut, smashing Senate contest records with a $57 million haul in the last full quarter of the campaign.

Graham, who had not previously faced a serious challenger in the conservative stronghold of South Carolina, complained about the amount of out-of-state money racked up by his rival. He eventually took to begging for campaign cash on Fox News and — at one point — the halls of the Senate in violation of ethics rules and federal law.

Harrison, who grew up poor but rose to become a senior staffer for the influential Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., and the first Black chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, steadily cut into Graham's support throughout the year. The underdog held Graham to a tie in the final two months of the campaign, and election forecasters across the board shifted the race to a toss-up.

The newcomer proved himself a deft and patient politician with appeal to Democrats and Republicans alike. Harrison ran a disciplined campaign, which avoided litmus tests and third-rail issues. He pushed for a public healthcare option and routinely reminded voters about local issues like broadband access, which rarely make national news. He cast Graham as out of touch with South Carolinians and linked that preoccupation to a poor response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Harrison, himself, kept a low-profile until the final weeks. Republican operatives had for months marveled at Graham's apparent reluctance to accept that his challenger, who told a story of growing up poor with a single mother and ascending to Yale, Georgetown Law and a top-flight Washington lobbying firm, posed a serious threat.

Of course, Graham, who as chair of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee ushered Barrett through her warp-speed confirmation process, was able to count on a bedrock Republican base. The incumbent senator focused his appeal to voters on red-meat issues, such as law and order, fiscal responsibility and the federal bench. But as the pandemic surged, his fealty to Trump, including regular visits to the president's properties, cost him among suburban voters and moderate Republicans, including key donors who flipped early to Harrison.

Harrison sought to highlight the split in Graham's personal interests from those of South Carolina, bringing a metaphor onstage with him at the first debate — a plexiglass divider to separate himself from the incumbent, who had the week before participated in Barrett's Rose Garden nomination ceremony, now thought to be a superspreader event.

Despite the outward display of loyalty to Trump, Graham still had to contend with voters who might choose to defect to Constitution Party candidate Bill Bledsoe, who ran to the incumbent's right but dropped out too late to strike his name from the ballot. Harrison, stuffed to the gills with cash, ran a series of ads in the final weeks reminding Palmetto State conservatives that Bledsoe remained an ideological option.

While Harrison did not back down from issues of race and social justice, he chose not to run on them in the state which kicked off the Civil War. Had he won, the state would have become the first in U.S. history to send two Black senators to Capitol Hill at the same time: Harrison and incumbent Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.

By Roger Sollenberger

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

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