Is Lindsey Graham Actually in Trouble in South Carolina?August 11, 2020
Michael Quattlebaum was just 10 years old when he attended a high-dollar Republican fundraising dinner in South Carolina’s state Capitol. His father was active in his local chapter of the GOP and eager to pass on the tradition. They were a Southern Baptist family from Anderson County, where Donald Trump won nearly 70 percent of the vote, including Quattlebaum’s. “It’s pretty deeply ingrained in my lifeblood,” Quattlebaum said of his conservatism. He’s now married with five children, including a son in the National Guard who just returned from Afghanistan.
But George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer and the protests that followed pushed Quattlebaum to examine a conflict between his political and moral beliefs. “I’ve never considered myself a racist, but I have been complicit in it because of my silence,” he said. He wants the elected officials that represent him “to be angry about this situation,” but the politicians he has voted for—like Trump and Sen. Lindsey Graham—are not. “It makes me embarrassed to be a Republican.”
At 51, the software consultant is planning to vote Democrat for the first time. “I think Lindsey Graham, to a large degree, has been a talking head for Trump,” Quattlebaum told me recently. “I know in his heart he doesn’t support everything that Trump represents, yet he does it anyway. And I have a problem with that.”
Quattlebaum is part of a sudden and unexpected shift among Republicans in a state so conservative it has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1998. College-educated moderates and self-described independents have turned on Trump and their anger is threatening the reelection prospects of one of the president’s most prominent surrogates. “I’m not gonna vote for any Republican who doesn’t disassociate himself or herself from the Trump political school,” said Andy Savage, a prominent Charleston attorney and moderate who has donated to Graham’s campaigns since at least 2004.
Normally, this anger might not be particularly worrisome for Graham. He won reelection in 2014 by a margin of more than 15 percentage points, and he hasn’t had a credible Democratic challenger since he was first elected 18 years ago. But that is not the case this year. The anger at Trump comes at a moment when Graham is facing his most serious opponent yet: an exceptionally well-funded, politically connected, centrist Democrat who is forcing election observers to wonder if South Carolina might, improbably, be in play.
Jaime Harrison, the first African American chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party and now associate chair of the Democratic National Committee, has shattered fundraising records and forced Graham to play defense, running attack ads that cast Harrison as too liberal for his state. Harrison’s campaign raised nearly $29 million by the end of June, compared with Graham’s $30.9 million. Two recent polls, by Morning Consult and Quinnipiac University, showed the two men were virtually tied. Several political forecasters, including the Cook Political Report, Sabato’s Crystal Ball and POLITICO’s Steve Shepard, rate the contest as “likely” Republican, but RealClearPolitics now calls it a toss-up.
Donors and political experts agree Harrison’s path to victory is a narrow one. “If Graham’s fortunes are closely tied to Trump’s ... then, for Graham to lose, you either have to predict a Trump loss in South Carolina (which would precipitate a Graham loss) or a situation in which Trump wins in South Carolina and many Trump supporters either vote against Graham, or don’t vote in the Senate race,” Scott Huffmon, political science professor and executive director of the Center for Public Opinion & Policy Research at Winthrop University, said in an email.
FiveThirtyEight’s average of polls now puts Trump ahead of Joe Biden by 6.4 percent in South Carolina—half the lead the president held in February before the coronavirus pandemic tanked the nation’s economy. Yet even if Graham’s popularity continues to decline with Trump’s, Harrison still has to convince some crucial constituencies, including wary Black voters conditioned to believe that Democrats have no real chance in South Carolina, that he is the exception. Add to that the challenges of campaigning during a pandemic and Harrison’s path seems especially daunting. But his sizable war chest—including $10.2 million cash on hand at the end of June—has the potential to alter the race with a barrage of advertisements that few Democrats have ever been able to afford.
“This race will be more competitive than I think Graham’s previous races have been,” said Danielle Vinson, professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University in Greenville. “But it’s still South Carolina, it’s still very much a Republican state, and so it’s an uphill battle.”
For Harrison, that’s not an unfamiliar position.
On his desk, Jaime Harrison keeps a quote from Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman, the former South Carolina governor and senator who, in 1876, led a white paramilitary gang that murdered six innocent African Americans in what was known as the Hamburg Massacre. “We have done our level best,” Tillman said of the state’s efforts to disenfranchise Black voters. “We have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed.”
This dark piece of history is a reminder of where South Carolina has been and how Harrison wants to change it. Much of his career has been devoted to enfranchising Black voters, and his future in politics rests on how well he did.
Born to a 16-year-old mother, Harrison was raised primarily by his grandparents in Orangeburg, a small, predominantly Black city south of Columbia. As a bright elementary school student, he read their bills aloud to them. He knew they paid the mortgage on their mobile home in person every month, and his grandmother kept the receipts in a shoebox. Yet they received letters saying they hadn’t paid, and one day the sheriff arrived and said the bank was foreclosing on them.
The family moved in with aunts and cousins while they saved up for a new home to rent. Watching a lawyer fail to help them fight the foreclosure, Harrison vowed to go to law school himself. “Justice is not just,” he told me. “Unless you have money, unless you have privilege, it doesn’t work for everybody.”
In high school, Harrison volunteered for the campaign of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn—the first African American elected to Congress from South Carolina since Reconstruction. In 1993, just after Clyburn took office, Harrison was named president of his school’s chapter of the National Honor Society. The 11th grader called the congressman and asked him to speak at his swearing-in ceremony. “Who would have enough guts to do that?” Clyburn remembers thinking when he accepted the invitation. “There’s something special about this young man.”
Harrison graduated from Yale and returned home to teach geography at his high school and serve as chief operating officer of a nonprofit that helps low-income students go to college. Then he earned a law degree from Georgetown and came home again—this time to help the state Democratic Party campaign for Inez Tenenbaum, a U.S. Senate candidate who would later serve as chair of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. That 2004 campaign gave Harrison experience turning out large numbers of African American voters. It also earned him enough money to cover the down payment on a new house for his grandparents.
By then, his grandfather had lost part of his leg to diabetes and would live only three more months. Harrison rolled him up the lawn in his wheelchair and said, “Mr. Bookie, this is your new house.”
“Boy, stop joking with me,” his grandfather replied, tearing up.
“I’m most proud of that,” Harrison says now. “Giving him some joy for just the few months that he had left in his life.”
Harrison returned to Washington, where he served as executive director of the House Democratic Caucus and then as Clyburn’s director of floor operations. In 2008, he joined the Podesta Group, a now-defunct lobbying firm founded by Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta and his brother, Tony. In his eight years there, Harrison lobbied on behalf of corporate giants such as Walmart, Boeing and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. While lobbying for Michelin North America, which is based in South Carolina, he met the company’s former CEO Dick Wilkerson, who has become one of his most vocal donors and supporters.
In 2013, Harrison went home again, this time to lead the South Carolina Democratic Party. According to Clyburn, Harrison tackled a critical issue: The allegation that Democrats “take the Black vote for granted.” He started a fellowship program that has trained five groups of young people—many of whom are Black—to become part of a pipeline of Democratic candidates in the state. Supporters say he helped lay the groundwork for more white voters to return to the party they had long since abandoned.
In 2018, Joe Cunningham became the first Democrat elected to represent South Carolina’s coastal 1st Congressional District in more than 40 years, after campaigning on issues such as climate change and offshore drilling. A year earlier, Democrat Doug Jones won a special election to become Alabama’s senator, thanks in large part to high turnout among African American women. Both victories would prove instructive to Harrison, who provided some advice to the Jones campaign in his role as associate chair of the DNC. “He really understood the changing demographics of the South,” says Doug Turner, a strategic adviser to the Jones campaign. He recalled that Harrison reminded him “there’s diversity within any given constituency, and to pay attention to that.”
Harrison had always considered running for office and says his decision to challenge Graham this year stemmed from concerns about his state’s future. The Federal Communications Commission estimates 650,000 South Carolinians don’t have access to broadband internet, according to The State newspaper. South Carolina did not expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and four rural hospitals have closed in the state since 2010. “I’m tired of my state, that I love so much, always being at the top of every bad list,” Harrison said.
He filed paperwork to run for the Senate in February 2019, and formally launched his campaign that May. His fundraising prowess was not immediately apparent. In the first quarter of last year, he raised just $231,000. But by the third quarter, after Graham gave an outraged speech calling the Brett Kavanaugh hearings “the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics,” Harrison pulled in more than $2.2 million, and the next quarter nearly $3.6 million. In the first quarter of this year, he outraised Graham, amassing more than $7.3 million compared with Graham’s $5.7 million.
Harrison could not have foreseen that things in his state would get even worse because of the coronavirus pandemic. In early July, the New York Times reported that, adjusted for population size, South Carolina had the third-worst outbreak in the world, with 2,300 confirmed new cases per million residents over the preceding week. Meanwhile, the protests in response to George Floyd’s death have prompted many Americans to consider the impact of racism on every aspect of society, including this election. Both issues have provided Harrison with campaign fodder that didn’t exist when he announced his candidacy. If Harrison manages to unseat Graham, it would mean that South Carolina, which still keeps a statue of Tillman, the racist former governor, at its statehouse, would have two Black senators.
On a grassy hillside overlooking the Reedy River in downtown Greenville, roughly 50 people gathered for a Juneteenth celebration. In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, sprawling Greenville County is the most populous county in South Carolina, and reliably Republican. But the city at its center is different. A quarter of Greenville residents are Black and four out of seven City Council members are Democrats. Michelin and BMW are headquartered nearby, along with Furman University, providing an influx of international and academic residents.
At the Juneteenth festival, commemorating the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Texas learned they had been emancipated, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” blared from loudspeakers on the outdoor stage. Devon Taylor, 30, stood nearby wearing a red-and-white T-shirt that said: “Make Racists Scared Again.” The nursing student said he plans to vote for Jaime Harrison “Because I want to unseat Lindsey Graham.” Taylor, who is Black, said he usually votes Democrat but had just voted in the Republican primary against Graham (who had three opponents and won 67.6 percent of the vote). When I met him, Taylor was chatting with Christen Clinkscales, a 31-year-old with red hair and freckles. “One hundred percent not Lindsey Graham,” Clinkscales said of her voting preferences. “He’s been in office a long time, and what has he done?”
Clinkscales was raised in a conservative household in Greenville, where even her Republican father referred to the senator as “Lindsey ‘Fifteen Seconds of Fame’ Graham.” (Before he became a fixture on Fox News, Graham earned a reputation for hogging the microphone with folksy, quotable soundbites during Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings). But during the five years she lived in New York after college, her political views had evolved. Now back home and working in marketing, she heard about Harrison through her local Young Democrats chapter and supports him. The nation’s reckoning with racial justice over the past few months has influenced her perspective. “White people need to step up,” she said. “I’ve been trying to be a better white person.”
Not everyone in the crowd was familiar with Harrison. MaKenzie Donald, 27, and Heather Nasuti, 30, were seeking shelter from the rain shortly after the festival began. Both women said they are registered but don’t regularly vote. Neither had decided on a Senate candidate. When I mentioned that an African American man was hoping to unseat Graham, their first question was whether he was a Democrat. “If I had to pick one today, it wouldn’t be Lindsey Graham,” said Nasuti, who is white. “I’m more left-leaning I guess,” she added. “It’d be nice to see some Southern states leaning in that direction.”
Donald, who is Black, said she accompanied her father to the polls when she was too young to vote. Now, she admits, voting is “something I want to get better at.”
Voters like her are part of the reason Harrison is facing such an uphill battle. According to Vinson, the Furman University professor, the “real place he stands a chance is independent voters and getting young people to the polls.” But there’s no guarantee either group—or voters of color—will turn out in large numbers in November.
Although a third of South Carolina’s 3.37 million voters are nonwhite, the state also has more than 400,000 unregistered voters of color, according to the progressive data company Catalist. Harrison isn't campaigning in person, and he's fighting the sense from Blacks and Democrats that his quest is hopeless. In the past, Vinson explains, conservative Democrats supported Graham because South Carolina is such a red state, and they’d rather have him than someone more right wing. “I think this time around they’re probably not [going to vote for Graham],” she said. “This time around, they’ve actually got a credible candidate.”
Jimmy Williams, a Democratic strategist and senior adviser to the anti-Graham LindseyMustGo PAC, says Black voters will be motivated by the “wildly popular” Joe Biden at the top of the ticket, along with several candidates of color further down the ballot, including Clyburn and Harrison. In the February presidential primary, Biden won 61 percent of Black voters in South Carolina, according to a Washington Post analysis, and the overall turnout of 540,000 voters surpassed Barack Obama’s 2008 primary turnout in the state by about 7,000 votes.
A memo released by Harrison’s campaign in early February laid out a clear, if ambitious, path to victory. He planned to register a quarter of eligible African Americans, mobilize “new and inconsistent” voters of color and “persuade white suburban voters who are already moving away from Republicans.” Harrison was also counting on some Republicans to abandon Graham for more conservative candidates. About 6.6 percent of voters chose Libertarian or independent candidates over Graham six years ago, and there are similar candidates on the ballot this year who could help Harrison’s cause.
Running for office in South Carolina usually involves fish fries and spaghetti dinners; Harrison had planned to be on a bus tour of the state this summer. But he revamped his strategy after the arrival of Covid-19. He and his wife, Marie Boyd, are caring for their 1-year-old and 5-year-old sons while working from home. He doesn’t want to endanger them or voters by holding campaign events. Instead, he purchased ads worth “six figures” on Black radio stations, according to his campaign, and launched his television and online advertising early. He reached out to faith leaders in Black communities and appeared frequently on television news shows. Ahead of the June primary, he held an online get-out-the-vote event on Zoom—a poor replacement for knocking on doors, especially for a candidate who estimated half the state’s voters still didn’t know his name.
The question remains whether Harrison can turn the anger at Graham into votes for him. That will mean flipping independents and moderates who have historically had no trouble voting for a Main Street conservative who worked across the aisle on issues like immigration and climate change.
Andy Savage, who leans Democrat but has donated to candidates in both parties, said he supported Graham from his first election because “I just thought he was a really good person. I still think the world of him, I just don’t understand what’s happened to him.”
His disillusionment began with Graham’s “disgraceful” treatment of John McCain. As McCain was dying, Graham went golfing with Trump, whom McCain hated and later forbade from attending his funeral. Trump continued to attack McCain after his death, and Graham, who had once called Trump a “kook” and a “bigot,” was criticized for not defending his friend forcefully enough. “I’m not into this idea the only way you can help honor John McCain is to trash out Trump,” Graham told CNN in March 2019.
Savage didn’t see it that way. “[Graham] promoted that friendship politically, and then to really just turn his back on him after he died—that didn’t go well with me,” he said. Then he watched Graham explode in anger at the Kavanaugh hearings and take a “strong right-hand turn that’s hard to explain.” It would be one thing if Graham’s allegiance to Trump had translated into some kind of benefit for South Carolina, Savage said, but “I don’t see that. All I see is something for him.”
“It’s sort of an insult to all of us who supported him,” Savage said. “We thought that he was such a good, moderate leader of the country.” Now Savage has donated $2,200 to Harrison, whom he calls a “cheerleader for those who have been left out.”
Johnny Hagins, a Greenville attorney and former state legislator, served on Graham’s finance committee when he ran for president in 2016. He’s a moderate Republican who finds Trump “repugnant” but is not sure whether he’ll vote for Graham this year. “What bothers me about him is his support of Trump,” Hagins said. “On the other hand, if we want our way about something, it’s good to have him.”
As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Graham helped get two South Carolina judges appointed to the 4th Circuit District Court of Appeals, Hagins added. “South Carolina is used to having people in high places.”
However, Hagins is certain the women in his family won’t vote for Graham. Like a lot of women, Republicans included, they were turned off by his behavior at the Kavanaugh hearings. Hagins’ wife, Priscilla, has already donated $200 to Harrison’s campaign.
The State newspaper in Columbia has identified at least 24 South Carolina donors who have defected from Graham to Harrison. The most prominent among them is Wilkerson, the former Michelin North America CEO who met Harrison during his lobbying days. In an op-ed in the Greenville News, Wilkerson explained that he supported Graham until 2017 because he saw him as “a moderate Republican who could work across the aisle to get positive change made.” But Graham’s perceived failure to defend McCain angered Wilkerson, as did his support for Trump’s 2017 tax bill, which “disproportionately favored those who are financially well off.” Finally, he disagreed with Graham’s attempts to delay the March coronavirus relief package because he felt the unemployment benefits were too generous. “Apparently, he feels that it is OK to share government dollars with those who don’t truly need the money but deny any small windfall to working people who have lost their jobs,” Wilkerson wrote.
In recent months, Harrison has picked up on this theme, emphasizing the impact Covid-19 has had on his state’s most vulnerable citizens. He often cites a Washington Post analysis, which found that South Carolina’s businesses received the smallest Paycheck Protection Program loans per worker of any state in the nation. He points out that most Black businesses haven’t received those loans, and, as of late June, 160,000 households with school-age children didn’t have access to the internet, according to the South Carolina Department of Education. In late July, Harrison held a news conference calling for virtual schooling to be an option for all students and for the Republican governor, Henry McMaster, to issue a mask mandate. He also criticized Graham for opposing the extension of unemployment benefits under the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill passed in March to address the impact of coronavirus on the economy. “We're gonna constantly remind people that he hasn’t done anything,” Harrison told me. “I have never seen such a dereliction of duty in my life.”
Graham’s campaign communications director, T.W. Arrighi, strongly disputes this notion, pointing out that Harrison’s been campaigning from home while Graham addresses the pandemic. “He supported the CARES Act that provided help for individuals, unemployed workers, businesses, hospitals, state governments, and schools,” Arrighi said in an August email. “In the last seven days alone, Sen. Graham has pushed policies to bring the PPE supply chain back to America from China, fix the unemployment insurance issue, and expand broadband internet access in rural areas.”
Graham has also modified his stance on unemployment benefits. In April, he said the additional $600 in weekly benefits provided by the CARES Act should be extended “over our dead bodies.” But in August, he introduced an amendment proposing to lower those benefits to $500 a week through September, and then lower them to cover 100 percent of a worker’s lost wages, as long as that amount doesn’t exceed $500. “Sen. Graham’s goal has always been to help people who are unemployed through no fault of their own by keeping their incomes intact and making them whole,” Arrighi said. “However, he does not want to pay people more to be out of work than to be at work, which is what Jaime Harrison and Nancy Pelosi support. Paying people more NOT to work sends the wrong message and hurts businesses in South Carolina.”
Harrison’s policy stances generally avoid the far left. He has not advocated to defund the police or apologized for his work as a lobbyist. His platform on health care—in favor of expanding Medicaid and protecting rural hospitals, but against a completely government-run health care system—is in line with the national party and Biden. Harrison tweeted his support for "Medicare for All" in February 2019, but later explained he supports a public option, alongside government insurance. Still, he’s too liberal for Graham’s taste. Arrighi calls the closure of rural hospitals “one of the many negative legacies of Obamacare,” and says Medicaid expansion is a decision made by state leaders, not senators. Arrighi also pointed out that Harrison has accepted campaign donations from MoveOn.org, which has petitions on its website advocating to defund the police. “Sen. Graham has made it crystal-clear that defunding the police is insane,” Arrighi said.
As protests over the killing of George Floyd convulsed the nation, Harrison published an op-ed in The Root that cast the struggle for racial justice as deeply personal rather than political. He talked about his grandmother watching the KKK march through her neighborhood, and the murder of his friend, state Senator Clementa Pinckney, during a racist church massacre five years ago. Above all, he worried about his young sons. The thought of having “the talk” about police brutality with them “rips my heart out,” he told me later. Yet the policy proposals in his op-ed were hardly revolutionary: “toughen hate crime legislation, end private prisons and cash bail, and train law enforcement officials on implicit bias.”
This middle-of-the-road platform helps Harrison court moderate voters. Quattlebaum said he appreciates Harrison’s humble roots, his support for the military and his emphasis on improving infrastructure in South Carolina. “I don't think he’s so left wing,” he said. “There’s not anything from a policy perspective that makes me think there’s no way I can support that.”