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Lindsey Graham’s “Achilles’ Heel”

Jaime Harrison wants to turn South Carolina's senate race into a referendum on Graham's character. Will it work?

Meg Kinnard/AP Images

Aside from Maine’s Susan Collins—who is a “moderate” until the moment Mitch McConnell needs her vote to Kavanaugh-ize the Supreme Court—Lindsey Graham is the most duplicitous Republican senator running for reelection in 2020. 

As recently as 2016, Graham was known as John McCain’s loyal Sancho Panza—an iconoclastic, albeit conservative, South Carolina senator who radiated scorn for candidate Donald Trump (“You know how you make America great again? Tell Donald Trump to go to hell”). Even before McCain died, however, Graham was already transforming himself into a Trump toady. Displaying a level of sycophancy that would even give Sean Hannity pause, Graham became a favored presidential golf buddy. He was the only out-of-state Republican senator at Trump’s reelection rollout in Orlando. And in subsequent weeks, he took to Twitter, in his typical lickspittle style, to declare, “that whole Trump third term thing is looking better and better.” 

For Jaime Harrison—the former chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party who, in May, embarked on a spirited, if daunting, race to unseat Graham—it all comes down to a question of character. 

During a recent 30-minute interview in the former real-estate office in Columbia that serves as his campaign headquarters, the 43-year-old Harrison kept coming back to that nine-letter word—“character.” It is at the heart of his strategy to prevent Graham from winning a fourth term. 

After the president attacked McCain for what he called “stains” on his record, a voter told Harrison, “I don’t like what Lindsey Graham has done in not standing up for John McCain.” “That’s an Achilles’ heel for Lindsey,” Harrison said, “because it’s a glimpse into his character.” Harrison used the same argument in his May announcement video, which told his origin story (“born to a 16-year-old Mom and raised by my grandparents in Orangeburg”) through illustrations that looked like they belonged in a superhero comic. “I always tried to do the right thing,” he says, just before the video cuts to a montage of Graham’s double-jointed back flips. 

I first met Harrison in early 2017, just a month after Donald Trump’s inauguration, as he embarked on another quixotic crusade. Along with South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg—another promising young Democrat who could not, at the time, see a path to winning a statewide election in a red state—Harrison had mounted a long-shot bid to become Democratic National Committee chair. He managed to inspire some affection but it didn’t translate into enough supporters, and Harrison dropped out before the balloting to endorse the eventual winner, Tom Perez.

Among Democratic operatives in Washington, Harrison’s Senate race is also inspiring more affection than gung-ho support. The number I keep hearing from Democratic insiders is 55 percent; both Trump in 2016 and Mitt Romney in 2012 received 55 percent of South Carolina’s votes. Even if Harrison mobilizes African Americans, his chances of defeating Graham in South Carolina are slim at best; the state is currently ranked maybe seventh on the Democratic pickup list, about on par with the chances of knocking off Joni Ernst in Iowa or John Cornyn in Texas. 

Nothing exasperates Harrison more than this particular form of Democratic defeatism. “It’s hard to get people in D.C. to see past the red in South Carolina,” Harrison said with frustration audible in his voice. “Sometimes they think of South Carolina as red as West Virginia, or Oklahoma, or Nebraska—when it’s not. In 2008, Barack Obama lost Georgia by seven points and South Carolina by eight.”   

Harrison insists that he did not launch his campaign because of Stacey Abrams’s near-miss in Georgia in 2018, but he freely concedes that he has been aided by her efforts. “What Stacey has done has helped me make the case that I have been trying to make for a long, long time,” he said. “You can’t cede territories to the Republicans. You can’t take entire regions of the country for granted. The Republicans don’t do that.” 

Harrison has one surprising advantage as he works to become the South’s first African American, Democratic senator. (All the black senators during Reconstruction were Republicans.) Racial appeals have long been a staple of South Carolina campaigns. Lee Atwater—who weaponized black convicted murderer Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis in 1988—got his start running divisive campaigns in South Carolina. And in the 2000 GOP South Carolina presidential primary, John McCain faced a scabrous whispering campaign that falsely claimed that his adopted daughter from Bangladesh was the fruit of an affair with a black prostitute. Today, however, South Carolina has an African American senator—Tim Scott, a Republican. His presence in state politics could help mute these kinds of racial calls, preventing them from spilling over into the Senate race. 

“I think Tim will keep them honest,” Harrison said as we chatted in wing chairs left behind by the last tenants of the real-estate office. “I’ve been involved in politics here in South Carolina for a long time and I know what happens on the Republican side when there’s a candidate of color on this side.... It can be nasty, but I’m hoping Tim will keep them on the straight and narrow.” 

Harrison has raised an impressive $1.5 million for his Senate campaign, according to his second quarter financial reports. But Graham, for his part, boasts an advantage he never had in prior Senate races. As longtime South Carolina GOP strategist Chip Felkel put it, “Lindsey is more popular with the GOP base than he has ever has been in his life.” That is, in large part, because Graham has substituted Trump for McCain as a father figure, but the cost to his honor cannot be ignored. “Every tweet I send out, every event I do. I want it to center around character,” Harrison said. “Character matters ... especially in this political world where people think all politicians are a bunch of charlatans.” 

All true. But over the years, dating back long before Strom Thurmond, South Carolina has reelected an impressive array of charlatans to the Senate.