To hear Jaime Harrison tell it, he’s already a winner.
“I’ve already won,” he recently told the Charleston City Paper. “This campaign is about bringing hope back. It is about inspiring a whole new generation of leaders. Letting folks know that they can do things, that they can achieve and be what they want to be.”
But Harrison, 44, is also campaigning for something more than hope: He’s challenging Lindsey Graham, 65, for his seat in the US Senate. A prominent Republican, Graham has served as a US senator from South Carolina since 2003, having handily won three successive races.
This time, though, Graham’s reelection isn’t a foregone conclusion.
A new Quinnipiac University poll shows that Harrison, a fundraising giant, and Graham are tied at 48% support from likely voters in South Carolina, about a month from the November 3 election. On Thursday, Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, a CNN contributor, moved the race in the Democrat’s favor, to Tilt Republican from Lean Republican.
Harrison isn’t just a Democrat who’s holding his own in what’s long been a reliably red state. He’s a Black Democrat – or a “double minority,” as Jahleel Johnson, a 19-year-old Black student at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, told CNN.
In this light, the hope and inspiration that Harrison often talks about on the campaign trail aren’t vague buzzwords. They describe the profound enthusiasm his candidacy evokes among the Palmetto State’s Black voters.
’He really is the hometown boy’
When observers say that Harrison has the potential to change the face of South Carolina politics, in some ways, they mean that literally.
It’s not that the state hasn’t seen a Black US senator before. Tim Scott assumed office in 2013, becoming the first Black US senator from South Carolina and the first Black American since Reconstruction to represent a Southern state in Congress’s upper chamber.
Since Emancipation, 10 US senators have been Black; three of them have represented Southern states. Other statewide offices have been similarly monochromatic. Of the two Black Americans who’ve ever been elected governor, one has led a Southern state. (This partly explains the buoyant tone around Stacey Abrams’ bid in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election.)
Crucially, in a state where Black voters make up more than 60% of the Democratic electorate, Scott is a Republican, a member of a party that’s a bastion of some of the country’s worst social ills. For these voters, then, what stands out about Scott isn’t his racial justice work – it’s the fact that 93.4% of the time, he’s voted in line with President Donald Trump, whose tenure has been defined by racism.
When asked earlier this week about Trump’s refusal during the first 2020 presidential debate to plainly denounce White supremacists, Scott told reporters that he thinks that the President “misspoke” and that he ought to “correct it.” It took Trump more than two days to do so.
Harrison would offer a different kind of visibility, a different kind of enfranchisement, to Black voters.
“It’s tough for a Black American to win a statewide seat here, but we’re at a critical moment when it might be possible,” said Tina Herbert, 46, an attorney in Columbia. “So I’m very excited about Harrison’s campaign. His story resonates with me. He really is the hometown boy.”
Indeed, in conversations with about a dozen Black voters, Harrison’s trajectory often came up. The Democratic rising star’s mother was 16 years old when she had him, and he was raised primarily by his grandparents in majority-Black Orangeburg, which was the site of a racial massacre in 1968, eight years before Harrison was born. Growing up, he saw firsthand how poverty disproportionately withholds opportunity from Black Americans.
On a scholarship, Harrison studied political science at Yale University. After graduating in 1998, he taught geography at his former high school, then worked at a nonprofit that helps low-income students go to college. He earned his law degree from Georgetown University in 2004. He also worked in South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn’s office from 2003 to 2008 and as a lobbyist for the now-defunct Podesta Group from 2008 to 2016.
For four years beginning in 2013, Harrison was the chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party – the first Black American to have the position. Since 2017, he’s been an associate chair of the Democratic National Committee.
“I know at least two people, including myself, who are considering running for statewide office because of what Harrison has done,” Marlon Kimpson, 51, a South Carolina state senator and another rising star of the Democratic Party, told CNN. “So many people are rooting for him because they see themselves in him.”
But it’s not just the impressive arc of Harrison’s life that strikes a chord with Black voters, in particular. It’s how he uses his experiences to extend a political vision that includes them.
“I’m excited about Harrison’s campaign not only because he’s eminently qualified to be a US senator but also because he pays attention to issues that are crucial to me,” said Davida Mathis, 64, an attorney in Greenville. “He thinks that health care should be affordable, that Medicaid should be expanded. His positions are the same as mine.”
Mathis mentioned that these issues are all the more necessary to tackle amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Covid-19 poses a distinct threat to the South, where both younger and older adults are at higher risk of serious illness from the virus.
This vulnerability aligns closely with poverty and race and is thanks in no small part to policy. The South is the poorest area in America, and often, the many rural, Latino and Black residents there don’t have access to high-quality care. In addition, most of the states that have said “no” to expanding Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act are in the South.
Harrison has made addressing the pandemic’s devastation and investing in South Carolina key planks of his campaign. In August, he announced his “Rural Hope Agenda,” which focuses on, among other things, improving access to health care, providing aid to farmers and bolstering rural schools.
Meanwhile, Graham frequently aims his arrows at the ACA. And in April, he made headlines when he declared that only “over our dead bodies” would Congress extend the coronavirus relief package’s $600 unemployment boost past July.
Is the tide turning?
Even a few years ago, both Democrats and Republicans in South Carolina viewed Graham as broadly agreeable. There were political differences, of course. But the senator appeared to be anchored by convictions that his opposite-party constituents could understand, and he seemed willing to buck his party if he had to.
But many voters’ image of Graham changed once he became one of Trump’s most pious defenders, even as the President’s popularity in the state declined.
“I supported Lindsey Graham until 2017. I saw him as a moderate Republican who could work across the aisle to get positive change made,” wrote Richard Wilkerson, the former president of Michelin North America, in a May op-ed for The Greenville News. “But I started having real misgivings about him when he failed to mount any significant defense when Donald Trump attacked his best friend, the late (Arizona) Sen. John McCain.”
Wilkerson also criticized Graham for seeking to “block the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) because he (Graham) feels that it provides unemployment benefits that are too high for the working people who lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 crisis.”
Like other donors in South Carolina, Wilkerson has switched his allegiance to Harrison. Such defection has been especially common among the state’s independents and moderates, who in previous years had little problem supporting a Graham they saw as being in the middle of the road. Notably, it helps that Harrison is a more centrist Democrat.
Walter Whetsell, a spokesperson for the pro-Graham Security Is Strength PAC, told CNN that the unique challenge for Graham isn’t his rival’s race but Harrison’s campaign chest, which has benefited significantly from out-of-state funds.
Whetsell said that while South Carolina has “overwhelmingly” elected a Black US senator before, no one has ever gone up against a candidate raising so much money.
(It’s worth highlighting that Scott won 8% of the Black vote in 2016, while his Democratic opponent, Thomas Dixon, also Black, won 90%, according to CNN exit polls.)
“Nobody’s ever had a race like this before,” Whetsell said.
He explained that in South Carolina, statewide campaigns traditionally buy eight to 10 weeks of television advertising at a cost between two and three million dollars. “(Harrison is) spending that damn near every two or three days,” Whetsell said.
Harrison’s campaign has spent or reserved more than $45 million in ads, compared with about $18 million from Graham’s, according to the ad tracking company Kantar/CMAG.
The Black voters interviewed for this story articulated a hope that, as Graham’s support atrophies, Harrison will continue to make inroads with voters of all political stripes, at least partly because they sincerely believe that he’d be good for everyone.
“Trump used to be a television personality, but when it comes to things like Social Security and Medicaid and helping people who are down and out because of Covid-19, these issues hit close to home. People don’t want to be entertained,” Mathis said. “Graham’s support of Trump makes him seem unconcerned with people at home. I don’t know if Graham has lost his mind, has lost his way or is drunk with power, but none of that serves South Carolinians.”
She continued: “What people want is help. And that’s what Harrison is offering. Even people with Confederate flags on their trailers need his help.”
The Harrison team spoke in similarly expansive terms.
“Right now, we’re building what Jaime calls ‘the New South’ – that is bold, diverse and inclusive,” campaign spokesperson Guy King said. “Jaime’s story is one that resonates with all South Carolinians, and he is running to ensure the people of the Palmetto State have the opportunity to achieve the American Dream just as he did.”
It remains an open question whether Harrison – propelled by his appeal, anger at Graham and the New South – can secure enough support to win on Election Day. To triumph, he’ll need to get young, independent and Black voters to the polls.
But already, it’s undeniable that his candidacy has made a difference in the Palmetto State.
“Harrison’s campaign illustrates that Democrats can’t just give up on South Carolina,” said Danielle Vinson, a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University (which, full disclosure, is my alma mater) in Greenville. “Even in the short term, his presence in the race will help some congressional candidates. It helps (South Carolina Rep.) Joe Cunningham, for example, because now he’s not the only one trying to turn out Democratic voters in the state.”
Johnson, the student, echoed Vinson’s sunny outlook, speaking specifically about the racial dimension of Harrison’s closely-watched bid.
“I aspire to run for political office in South Carolina one day. At first, I was hesitant because I thought: Can a Black politician who’s a Democrat really make it? Harrison has told me that I can,” Johnson said. “I hope that he wins. But even if he doesn’t, he’s inspired me to fight, regardless of the barriers I might face.”
Alex Rogers contributed to this report.