(CN) — After spending much of the week leading the confirmation hearings of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, Senate Judiciary chairman Lindsey Graham turned his attention to South Carolina and the bitter neck-and-neck race for his reelection.
In a video posted to his Facebook page Thursday, Graham touted the nomination of Barrett, calling it a “big historic moment for the young, conservative women of the world.”
In a state who has not elected a Democrat to any statewide office in decades, polling indicates Jaime Harrison, former head of the South Carolina Democratic Party, has been running a tight race against Graham.
To get to this point, to get to the nomination, Graham had to go against the criticisms he leveled against President Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential race. He had to go against the statement he made when Republicans were fighting against then-President Barack Obama’s 2016 nomination of Merrick Garland.
“Use my words against me,” Graham urged in 2016. “If there’s a Republican president in 2016 and a vacancy occurs in the last year of the first term, you can say, Lindsey Graham said, ‘Let’s let the next president, whoever it might be, make the nomination,’”
It is at the end of the first term of the Republican president elected in 2016. The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has left a vacancy in the final weeks of the election. And in a reelection bid that has turned into a fight for his political survival, the senator has been pulled off the campaign trail and onto Capitol Hill where he can demonstrate rather than talk about his accomplishments in Washington.
Yet that comes with its own perils.
Gibbs Knotts, political science professor at The College of Charleston, said it’s a “big lift” for a Democratic candidate to win a state-wide election in a state where every other position chosen by state-wide elections are filled with Republicans, it has been that way for decades, and the Republican Party is strong.
Before the pandemic, Graham was running ahead comfortably in his reelection bid, Knotts said. But Harrison has shown himself to be a strong candidate in an election year “that could be a little challenging for Republicans.”
Generally, the confirmation hearings could ultimately be beneficial for Graham, Knotts said.
“It’s kept him in the spotlight and I think reminded people in South Carolina this is a conservative state,” Knotts said.
As the first day of hearings kicked off Monday, Graham, presiding over them, predicted a long, politically bitter week but said the Republican-dominated Senate was only following the Constitution closely. He was the senator to ask Barrett to elaborate on her originalist judicial philosophy.
On Wednesday, Graham defended Barrett’s answers to questions regarding Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion. And by Thursday, Graham quickly set Oct. 22 as the day the full Senate would decide the nomination of Barrett, which is all but certain to pass.
Yet some of Graham’s comments have given ammunition to Harrison, whose campaign can cut moments from this week’s nomination process, use Graham’s words against him and try to erode the senator’s support among suburban, college-educated voters and independents, according to Knotts.
On Oct. 11, the day before the confirmation hearings began, the Harrison campaign announced it had broken the fundraising record for the most amount of money a senate candidate raised in a quarter — $57 million.
As the hearings kicked off, Harrison sought to reframe the focus on the pandemic and Graham’s resistance to extending Covid-19 relief benefits.
“Rather than pushing for immediate COVID relief for millions of South Carolinians, Lindsey is rushing to confirm a Supreme Court nominee,” Harrison said in a statement.
Harrison told the Charleston-based Post and Courier he disagreed with the idea of packing the Supreme Court.
When Graham had asked Barrett if she knew of “any effort to go back to the good old days of segregation by a legislative body,” the Harrison campaign seized on the statement Graham later said was a sarcastic reference to the Jim Crow South and said it was proof the senator was out of touch with his state.
“It’s time for new leadership that is reflective of the New South, that is bold, inclusive and diverse. Lindsey Graham has lost his moral compass,” Guy King, Harrison’s spokesperson said in a statement.
In a Friday tweet, Harrison’s campaign accused Graham of ethics violations when he solicited donations and directed people to his campaign website during an interview on Capitol Hill.
Neither the Graham nor Harrison campaigns returned Courthouse News’ requests for comment.
However, a poll released Thursday by the New York Times and Siena College suggested Graham was largely benefitting from the confirmation hearings. It showed Graham with 46% support edging out to Harrison’s 40%. Furthermore, 52% of the poll’s respondents supported Barrett’s nomination.
Bruce Ransom, political science professor at Clemson University, said South Carolina has traditionally taken pride in its representatives holding senior positions in Congress and by Friday, Graham was back in the state touting the confirmation hearings.
“Conservative judge being appointed to the Supreme Court — it can’t get any better than that,” Ransom said. “Now that doesn’t include all South Carolinians, but if you’re voting for a Republican it’s a big deal.”
In the race Ransom said “truly is a toss-up,” the result will come down to turnout, whether Black voters show up to back the Democratic challenger, if Harrison can woo voters who typically vote Republican and if he can gather support among college-educated white females.
Brendan Payne has not been following the Senate race as much as it has been following him, said the history teacher who lives outside Greenville in the state’s Dark Corner historically known for its moonshine stills and is now the “reddest part of a red state.”
Payne lived in Texas when Beto O’Rourke ran a cash-heavy campaign against Senator Ted Cruz but South Carolina is a smaller state and the race is intense, he said. Already, the Graham campaign has sent him two mailers touting Barrett’s confirmation hearings.
But the hearings have not changed his thoughts on the race.
“For me, it solidifies what we already knew: that Graham is a conservative, Harrison’s a liberal, that Graham’s hypocritical,” Payne said.
In order to mitigate a possible pile-up of absentee ballots, Payne is planning to vote Nov. 3. But Payne, who supported Republicans in the past, is leaning towards Harrison because he said Graham and other Republicans turned from pledging to reign in Trump to licking his boots.
“What the Republican Party needs to do is reset,” Payne said. “We need to purge all this nastiness that Trump and others have been injecting into the party and we need to get people with backbone, with real principals, who care about what they say they care about.”
Robin Halewood, a retired special education teacher who lives in the Charleston area, said Graham’s conduct in the hearings have not been the focus over the last few days. “It’s not front-page news here,” Halewood said of the liberal area that runs largely along South Carolina’s coast.
She cast her ballot for Harrison on the first day of early voting on Oct. 5 and she knows of a handful of people in their 50s, 60s and 70s who registered to vote in this election for the first time.
“You feel his humanity,” she said of Harrison.
Halewood said Graham’s decision to oppose stimulus money in response to the pandemic has affected the Charleston area, with a good portion of its economy reliant on the hospitality of hotels, restaurants and attractions.
“It’s just amazing … I walk all around downtown and it’s all about Jaime Harrison,” she said.
Matthew Dunlap, who is in car sales in the Columbia area, plans on voting Nov. 3, mask on, “social distancing as all get out.” In the meantime, he’s watching a “mudslingin’ mess” of a race, where political ads fill up the advertisement breaks during television shows.
“I have seen three political ads back-to-back-to-back in the same commercial set,” he said.
Even though he despises Graham’s flip-flopping — comparing him to the Pokémon characters called Dittos who mimic other Pokémon — Dunlap said Graham better aligns with his values.
“I’m adopted and my birth mother was given the option, the choice, to abort. My birth father was not part of the story but she chose life,” Dunlap said. “So for me, it’s very difficult.”
According to Dunlap and Halewood, Harrison faces one last hurdle after voters enter their polling location and receive their ballot: South Carolina has straight-party voting where voters can fill out their ballots within seconds based on party.
Dunlap said, “That will be the saving grace for Graham — not his policies, not what he says, not what he does, just because he puts in front of his name, or the end of his name, Lindsey Graham: R.”