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You could make the argument that, as the Senate gets to work confirming whomever the president picks to join the Supreme Court, the politician with the most at stake here is Lindsey Graham. The senator from South Carolina is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, responsible for organizing hearings for the nominee. Since 2016, he’s argued multiple times that President Donald Trump shouldn’t be able to fill a vacant SCOTUS seat in the last year of his first term—but now, he’s made an about-face. This has provided the grist for national political ads as Graham runs for reelection in a surprisingly tight race against Jaime Harrison, former chair of the state’s Democratic Party. Trump’s new SCOTUS nominee, and Graham’s role in the process, is obviously bound to affect this race. But it’s hard to tell how, considering how deep-red South Carolina is. To figure out how this situation is playing with Graham’s constituents, I spoke with Meg Kinnard, who reports from South Carolina for the Associated Press, on Thursday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: If I asked you a week ago about Lindsey Graham’s chances for reelection, I wonder what your answer would’ve been then, and whether the past week or so would have changed your answer at all.
Meg Kinnard: We’ve seen this race tightening, but I would still say that this is Lindsey Graham’s race to lose. I think it does depend on how certain voters, who might have considered themselves somewhat undecided, see this Judiciary Committee process playing out, and whether they feel like the end result is something that they could support both for the White House and in their Senate seat.
In the past, Supreme Court hearings have been good for Lindsey Graham. Back when Brett Kavanaugh went through this process, it became a platform for Graham to show off his conservative bona fides and shame the Dems. It played well back home too. It was especially important because, for years, Graham had been known as the kind of politician who was happy to reach across the aisle and compromise.
For a lot of people who maybe were just becoming aware of him during that debate, that was a very impassioned moment for Graham. It propelled him into the spotlight and won him a lot of conservative plaudits from a lot of critics who had previously seen him as too conciliatory. Kavanaugh was different because we did see Graham just take the mike and let Democrats have it for what he saw as a process that was unfair and was very divisive and was potentially harmful to this judge. That moment also did a lot in terms of advancing Graham’s relationship with Trump, who’s certainly popular in South Carolina.
I wonder how you saw that effect with voters in your state.
Those voters who were and have continued to be strong supporters of Trump, they liked what they saw. They liked seeing their elected senator up there aligned with the president. They saw it as him standing up for a conservative who was being done wrong by the Democrats. As for Democrats, self-described independents, or those who are unaffiliated, they saw that scene as more of the flip-flopping Lindsey Graham who was already seen as too willing to go with the tide, too willing to see an opportunity and jump on it because he saw it as the winning one.
Enter Jaime Harrison. When you heard he was running for the seat, were you surprised?
I was not surprised. Harrison has been a very visible figure here in South Carolina. He was the chairman of the Democratic Party here during the 2016 presidential cycle, which obviously saw a very active primary process on both sides of the aisle. He’s also an associate chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and he ran for chairman of the committee after he left his role here at the state party.
So he’s a party guy.
He is a longtime party guy. But yes, he’s very well known in South Carolina Democratic circles as well as national circles. He was at many events with all the candidates who were pursuing the party’s nomination. I even ran into him at some Republican debates because he and the then-chairman of the state Republican Party, Matt Moore, were very good friends and continue to be.
So I don’t think his candidacy surprised people who have been closely following South Carolina politics because of his local visibility and his ability to bring in some of that national-level support that in a state that isn’t going to be able to fundraise tens of millions of dollars for a Democrat. He could use his relationships to bring that money in, to give his campaign the kind of visibility that he saw as necessary to go up against someone like Graham.
Can we talk a little bit about why he even thought this race was worthwhile? Because South Carolina is a reliably Republican state.
I asked Harrison at the beginning, “Why are you doing this?” His answer was, We see Graham as somebody who needs to be replaced, and there should be a Democrat representing South Carolina. We don’t like some of his policies. Because of my longtime relationships in Democratic circles. I’ve got what it would take.
Given all that, what do I make of the polls that have been showing a really tight race between Graham and Harrison?
Polls are good for candidates like Harrison because they help him in raising money, which is something he’s continued to do. One of the surveys that came out recently from Quinnipiac showed the race completely tied up; in the two days after that survey came out, Harrison’s campaign raised $2 million. I remember when Harrison brought in $1.5 million for a quarter. I mean, that merited its own coverage back then. And now we’re talking about more than that in just 48 hours.
There is a lot of money in this race—about $30 million on both sides. But airtime in South Carolina is not that expensive. And it seems like the biggest thing that campaign spending is accomplishing is raising more money for the campaigns to spend.
What you have seen from both of these campaigns is a high level of visibility in terms of national advertising. A lot of cable buys for both candidates as well as by the third-party groups who are involved in the race, even though not everybody who watches those channels can vote in this race.
What does that do for you if you’re running?
It probably makes voters feel really jazzed up about races in different places. But in addition to that, it buys a lot of digital space. The digital ads for this cycle and for the several preceding it have become more and more important because they can be everywhere and they can take on a lot of different formats. And those can be microtargeted to voters in certain areas, like, “We need to make sure we shore up our support in the conservative upstate part of South Carolina, so let’s target a lot of our digital ads there.” That’s what the campaigns are doing that does cost money. And with all this money, they can certainly do a lot of it.
This race makes me wonder whether there’s another goal, which is to make Lindsey Graham sweat, spend a ton of money, and make it rain for the Democrats more generally. And I wonder if that’s an end goal in and of itself.
I think national-level Democrats have put money and attention into this race to perhaps put down a marker: “Let’s try to get more footholds throughout the Deep South.” Even if it doesn’t necessarily happen this time, it’ll perhaps set the groundwork for it to happen the next time. There’s a piece I wrote a couple weeks ago that kind of hits on some of the overall Democratic voting picture here in South Carolina: Democrats here feel energy for the first time in a long time. Some of that comes off the almost-two-year Democratic presidential primary process that we had here: It garnered a lot of attention for this state and also just jazzed up Democrats.
South Carolina was one of the earlier voting states, so it was really important.
Absolutely. First primary in the South, in a place where Black voters comprise the majority of the Democratic voting electorate here. There was a lot of energy among Black Democrats particularly, but also just the party. They got a lot of attention. They had a lot of events. And I think, coming off that process, Democrats, Harrison included, feel like they’ve got some oomph heading into the general election for the presidential race and also for the down-ballots like the Senate race. Even if it doesn’t translate into any wins, candidates and strategists alike tell me that they see it as moving in a positive direction, that it’s showing a good sign in terms of elections to come, for the next Senate seat that becomes available or in a future presidential election.