In a year full of unusual events, here's another — a Democrat could actually win a U.S. Senate seat in South Carolina, a Republican stronghold that one political expert describes as "so red that it is sunburned."
Several polls show a dead heat between first-time candidate Jaime Harrison, 44, who lives in Columbia and is a former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, and Lindsey Graham, 65, a Republican from Seneca seeking his fourth term in the Senate.
In a phone interview with The Greenville News, Graham predicted voters will reject Democrats for embracing "the most radical agenda that I've ever seen," which he said includes abolishing the Electoral College and allowing the District of Columbia to become a state.
The platform approved at the Democratic National Convention does not address the Electoral College, established by Congress to indirectly elect the president, but it does call for making Washington, D.C., the nation's 51st state.
"That is why on Election Night, I'm going to do very well," said Graham. "I'm going to win decisively."
In a separate phone interview, Harrison said South Carolina voters realize Graham is no longer fighting for them on issues that matter.
"He has simply lost touch with the people of this state," Harrison said. "I want people to understand this — whereas Lindsey Graham is trying to scare them to vote for him, I am trying to inspire people to vote for me."
Harrison and Graham are set to meet in their first debate on Saturday night at Allen University, a historically Black school in Columbia.
Close race could be affected by Supreme Court nominee
On Oct. 5, voters will begin casting in-person absentee ballots in a race that defies recent history, according to Danielle Vinson, a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University.
"I have never had a conversation about a South Carolina Senate race like this in my entire 25-year history of being a professor in the state," she said. "We've not had a competitive Senate race until now."
The late Fritz Hollings was the last Democrat to represent South Carolina in the Senate, and he left office in 2005. The state's last close contest was in 1998 when Hollings narrowly defeated Republican Tommy Hartnett.
In Graham's three previous Senate races, he has beaten his Democratic opponents by an average margin of nearly 14%.
Vinson points to a number of reasons why Graham seems to be facing the fight of his political life this year.
"You've got some conservatives who just aren't fond of Lindsey Graham. You've got moderates that have supported Graham in the past, but they've never had a real credible candidate on the other side," Vinson said. "Jaime Harrison is a credible candidate."
A Quinnipiac University Poll conducted in September showed Graham and Harrison tied. Harrison held a lead among the poll's respondents in the 18-49 age group while Graham was favored by older voters.
A recent Morning Consult poll showed Graham holding a one-point lead over Harrison while another poll trumpeted by the Harrison campaign showed the Democrat holding a two-point edge. Both leads fell within the margin of error for each poll.
Harrison appeals to young people who care about climate change and racial equality, Vinson said. But she said it is unclear whether those supporters will cast more ballots this year than in prior elections. Voters between the ages of 18 and 24 cast less than 4% of all ballots in South Carolina in the 2016 and 2018 elections.
Graham's role in guiding President Donald Trump's newly minted Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett through the confirmation process also may emerge as a key factor in the closing days of this year's race.
Graham, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, met with Barrett on Tuesday and called her "one of the most qualified people ever nominated to the Supreme Court.” She's "really good at everything" she has chosen to do, Graham said according to USA Today, and “the American people are going to see that over the coming days.”
A quick confirmation of Barrett to fill the high court vacancy created by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death would help Graham shore up support on his right flank, Vinson said.
"In South Carolina, there are some conservatives who would happily sell their soul for the Supreme Court seat," she said.
Graham said the Supreme Court is an important topic for voters to consider.
"Nothing could crystalize the issues more than this," he said. "Who do you want sitting on the court, a conservative constitutionist or a liberal activist?"
But Harrison and other Democrats have accused Graham of hypocrisy, noting that he said in 2016 and 2018 that he would not support filling a Supreme Court seat in the months before an election.
Graham said he changed his mind after Democrats tried to "destroy" Supreme Court Justice Bruce Kavanagh during his confirmation hearing two years ago. Graham also said 17 Supreme Court justices have been confirmed during election years when the White House and Senate were controlled by the same party, as is now the case.
"We're not doing anything outside traditional norms," Graham said.
Graham-Harrison race attracts lots of out-of-state money
A win by Harrison in South Carolina would provide an unexpected boost for efforts by Democrats to regain control of the Senate for the first time since 2015. As a result, the race between Graham and Harrison is receiving national attention.
David Woodard, a retired Clemson University political science professor, said he received calls last week from reporters with The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. But Woodard, who managed Graham's initial congressional campaign back in 1994, said he doesn't think South Carolina's senior senator "is any trouble whatsoever" because of the state's "sunburned" status as Republican-red state.
Out-of-state donors are pouring millions of dollars in campaign cash into the race.
Graham and Harrison each have collected more in contributions from California than they have from South Carolina, according to the Federal Election Commission.
"This is not a South Carolina Senate race anymore," Graham said. "This is a national race."
Graham and Harrison each have raised more than $30 million for their campaigns, a record-shattering amount in South Carolina.
While Graham held an early financial advantage, Harrison has outraised him this year. Harrison's campaign reported that it raised more than $2 million in a 48-hour period last month after the latest Quinnipiac University Poll.
Months of successful fundraising have enabled Harrison to saturate the airwaves with campaign ads. His campaign also has spent more than $6.6 million on digital advertising, about twice as much as Graham's campaign, according to OpenSecrets.org, run by the nonprofit and nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Political committees also are involved on both sides of the race.
On Monday, a group called Senate Majority PAC announced that it will spend $6.5 million on TV and digital ads that blame Graham for standing in the way of lower prices for prescription medications. On the same day, a pro-Graham group, Security is Strength, unveiled an ad featuring a South Carolina mother and teacher accusing Harrison of being "part of this liberal culture that is tearing our country apart."
"The amount of spending here is unprecedented," Graham said during his interview with The News. "But here is what I believe — South Carolina is not for sale."
A day later, Graham pleaded for campaign contributions during appearances on two Fox News TV programs.
"I am getting overwhelmed, Help me," he told Sean Hannity's viewers. "They're killing me moneywise."
During a Facebook broadcast Saturday, Harrison commented on Graham's most recent attempt to raise campaign cash.
"For him to go on Fox News the other night and virtually in tears — I was like, man, stand up for yourself," Harrison said. "I almost felt a little bad for him."
Nate Leupp, chairman of the Greenville County Republican Party, said Graham is helping GOP candidates across the nation by attracting Democratic donations to a race that he will ultimately win.
“I don’t believe in South Carolina in 2020 that the U.S. Senate race is a realistic target for Democrats," Leupp said. "So for all of the hassle that Senator Graham and his campaign has trying to counter those dollars, he’s taking one for the team — making sure that those dollars aren’t going to flip a seat in other regions.”
Trav Robertson, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, scoffed at Leupp's theory.
"It's a rationalization," Roberts said. “The reason I know it is a rationalization is because I have used it myself before to justify when you don’t have a campaign plan and you don’t have an organization and you don’t have an excuse for why you’re getting beat.”
Harrison says he has turned 'long odds' into the American dream
Because of health concerns linked to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Harrison has primarily relied on virtual campaign events like the video call that he held Aug. 12 with Anderson County Democrats.
"I was raised on a dirt road in Orangeburg" by a single mother and grandparents, Harrison said during the call.
He recalled the typical Sunday at his home.
"My grandma would have pots on the stove and the oven humming," he said. "You would eat, laugh, cry, eat some more, and then when it was time to leave she'd have a plate right next to the door wrapped in tinfoil."
His grandfather died of diabetes-related complications in 2004, which is one of the reasons Harrison cites for focusing heavily on health-care issues in his Senate campaign.
In his interview with The News, Harrison said South Carolina is one of only 12 states that has not accepted federal money to expand Medicaid. If elected, Harrison said, he would pressure state leaders to reverse course.
Harrison was the first member of his family to go to college, attending Yale University on a scholarship. After graduating, he returned home to teach high school and help run a nonprofit before going to Georgetown Law. He then joined U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn's staff, eventually becoming the first Black person and the youngest person to serve as executive director of the House Democratic Caucus.
He also had a successful lobbying career with the Podesta Group, which disbanded in 2017.
Graham's campaign has criticized Harrison's role as a lobbyist for a company that foreclosed on the homes of Hurricane Katrina victims.
Robertson said Graham's criticism "is a bunch of bunk." He said Harrison has lobbied for companies that are major employers in South Carolina, including Michelin North America.
Harrison and his wife, University of South Carolina law professor Marie Boyd, have two sons. According to tax returns reviewed by The Greenville News, the couple earned nearly $2.7 million during a seven-year period from 2012 to 2018. They paid nearly $800,000 in federal and state income taxes during that time.
In his video call with Anderson County Democrats, Harrison said his life "is emblematic that the American dream is alive and well. And what I'm wanting to do, the reason why I'm in this race for U.S. Senate, is because I want to make sure that my story is not an anomaly.
"We are about to close the chapter on what I call the Old South, and we are going to write a whole new book called the New South, a New South that is bold, that is inclusive and diverse, that includes all of us — because our future is brighter than what our past is."
Graham has gone from a bar in Central to golfing with President Trump
Graham and his younger sister were raised in Central, a small town east of Clemson. Their parents owned the Sanitary Cafe, a combination restaurant, pool hall and liquor store.
“I grew up the back of a bar, and here’s the one thing that I learned growing up in a bar — you’ve got to be nice enough and funny enough like my dad to get people to want to come back; you’ve got to be tough enough so that they don’t take your business away from you," Graham said during last week's interview. "So maybe the biggest surprise of all is that growing up in the back of the bar is the best training to be a senator in 2020.”
He was 21 when his mother died of a blood cancer called Hodgkin's lymphoma. His father died of a heart attack a little over a year later. Graham continued attending classes at the University of South Carolina but came home most weekends to be with his teenage sister, who was living with their aunt and uncle.
His political career began in 1992 when he won a seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives. Two years later, he became the first Republican to represent the state's Third Congressional District since 1887. And Graham replaced the iconic Strom Thurmond in the Senate in 2002.
During his short-lived presidential campaign in 2015, Graham was one of Donald Trump's most vocal critics. Upset about derogatory comments Trump had made about his friend, U.S. Sen. John McCain, Graham called Trump a "jackass" three times during an appearance on "CBS This Morning."
But Trump and Graham have become political allies and frequent golfing companions during the ensuing years.
"I had no idea that this would happen," Graham said. "He’s allowed me to be in his orbit. I’ve gotten to be friendly with the president."
The Greenville News reviewed 12 years of tax returns dating to 2008 that were provided by Graham's campaign. During that period, he earned between $152,000 and $206,000 annually.
Despite the pandemic, Graham is appearing at some campaign events. He spoke at an August gathering of Greenville County Republicans.
“This is going to be the easiest decision you’ve made in your life if you’re a conservative person," Graham told the audience before asking a series of questions. “How many of you are pro-life? OK, my opponent is not. How many of you are for the Green New Deal? He is.
“How many of you got a gun? How many of you want to register it with the government? He does. How many of you want to give illegal immigrants free health care? Yeah, me either.
“How many of you believe Trump should have been impeached? Yeah, I don’t either. How many of you thought Kavanaugh was treated poorly? Me too.
“If you want to make sure the country doesn't go down the left road in a fashion that you've never seen in your life, then you need to vote," Graham said. "I don't care if you like me or not; you just need to vote for me."
Two experts and two voters weigh in on the Senate race
Graham and Harrison have agreed to take part in three televised debates in October.
Debates can make a difference in close races, according to Charles Bierbauer, who was a senior Washington correspondent for CNN before serving as dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina.
Bierbauer, now retired, served as the moderator for numerous political debates.
"The debate is the only chance you get to see them face-to-face," he said. "There are going to be voters who don't know who Jaime Harrison is. Other than in an ad or something, they'll be seeing him for the first time, and they will be able to say whether or not his position and his ability to state it is sufficiently impressive for them to make up their mind to vote or even change their vote."
Bieirbauer said he considers Graham as the favorite in the contest.
"It is still a pro-Trump, Republican-red state," he said.
Vinson, the Furman University professor, said Harrison will need "a very perfect storm to pull off the win."
"He'll have to get people to the polls in numbers that we have not seen before," she said.
Greenville County residents Laura Greyson and Nathanael Zakariasen are two of the voters who will help decide the race.
Greyson, a retired political science professor who moved from western New York to Greer in 2016, said she is going to vote for Harrison.
"He seems like a person of very good character. I like his story of where has come from in life," said Greyson. She also supports Harrison's position on healthcare, an issue that she says has taken on greater importance during the pandemic.
Zakariasen, 28, is a Bob Jones University graduate who does interior design work on custom homes. He intends to vote for Graham.
"I think he is a very strong voice for the Republican Party, and he has a lot of sway," Zakariasen said.
One thing that Zakariasen and Greyson agree on is that the stakes are higher than usual in this election.
"I honestly think this one will affect the rest of my life, no doubt about that," Zakariasen said. "I would rate it a 10 out of 10 in terms of importance."
Greyson said she is "really worried about whether our Constitutional democracy is going to survive if we keep going the way we're going, so I am pretty invested."
"I hope Jaime Harrison wins," she said. "I know it appears neck-and-neck, but I don't know that it will go in that direction."
– Carol Motsinger contributed to this report.
Kirk Brown covers government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @KirkBrown_AIM.