But that fantasy scenario is now reality for Democrat Jaime Harrison and his team, after he reported a jaw-dropping fundraising haul Sunday of $57 million for the third quarter. The sum not only shatters fundraising records for a Senate race in South Carolina, but for any Senate race anywhere — eclipsing the previous record for one quarter of $38.1 million set by Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke in 2018.
Now, the question is not whether Harrison will have the money to seriously compete against Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has failed to keep pace with Harrison’s fundraising and is now neck-and-neck with the Democrat in public polling. It’s whether Harrison will be able to spend it.
In short: Yes, he can.
“100%,” said Wesley Donehue, a South Carolina Republican consultant. “You can always spend more money.”
It is unquestionably the kind of problem a campaign wants to have, enabling an all-encompassing air and ground war to persuade fence-sitting voters and drive up turnout among supporters in the crucial home stretch – with the potential for scaled up TV, radio, digital, mail and canvassing in person or by phone or text, including sophisticated absentee ballot and early voter targeting. All South Carolina voters are eligible this year for absentee voting, which began on October 5.
And in an election year when Democrats are on high alert for voter suppression efforts, some campaign money could be used for legal fees and staff for possible legal challenges in advance of or following the election.
“We’re so humbled and inspired by the outpouring of support for Jaime’s campaign, and we’re investing every dollar donated immediately into our unprecedented digital organizing program, historic investment in African American communication and outreach, as well as funding in seven media markets,” said Harrison’s campaign manager Zack Carroll. “Mitch McConnell and his allies are spending tens of millions here in South Carolina, and every dollar is critical to Jaime’s efforts to restore hope to South Carolinians statewide.”
It’s not just Harrison, either — Democratic Senate candidates across the country have been posting massive fundraising totals, previewing a spending blitz in the weeks to come. In Iowa, Theresa Greenfield said her campaign raised nearly $29 million for the third quarter. In North Carolina, Cal Cunningham said he brought in more than $28 million.
Harrison’s campaign has not yet confirmed its cash on hand heading into the final stretch, which could be significantly less than his $57 million fundraising figure, given his campaign’s aggressive spending to date.
But that aggressive approach was by design, said one Democratic strategist working on Senate races, to ensure that Democratic campaigns would not leave money on the table with a late surge in fundraising, as has happened in previous campaign cycles. In 2018, for example, then-Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota ended her losing reelection bid with a whopping $6.8 million in the bank.
“This time they planned for it,” the strategist said. “They’re able to do these high-end programs that everyone’s always wanted to do, to talk to every voter possible.”
Whatever Harrison’s exact budget, roughly half of his remaining spending will likely go to television advertising, said Nu Wexler, a former executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party. Of South Carolina’s seven media markets, the Charlotte, North Carolina, market, which bleeds into the Rock Hill area of South Carolina, is also currently saturated with ads from the expensive North Carolina Senate race between Cunningham and GOP Sen. Thom Tillis as well as the presidential contest, which is driving up ad prices.
“This kind of money allows Harrison to spend freely in the Charlotte market, home to a lot of suburban swing voters but prohibitively expensive for some campaigns,” Wexler said. “They can run a Cadillac mail campaign to reach sporadic older voters and saturate digital and niche media to persuade and energize younger voters. They don’t have to worry about the (National Republican Senatorial Committee) or a super PAC dropping a nuclear bomb on them, because they know they can match it.”
Republican groups have recently rushed to Graham’s rescue in South Carolina, with the GOP-backed Senate Leadership Fund announcing a $10 million investment in the state earlier this month, which would put the parties closer to parity on ad spending. But Democratic groups, too, have taken an interest in the surprise pickup opportunity, with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee last month confirming it would spend seven-figures in the race, and the Democratic group Senate Majority PAC launching its own $6.5 million ad buy in the state.
It matters that Harrison himself has raised so much money, though, because candidates get more favorable advertising rates than outside groups do.
His campaign has already been blanketing the airwaves to an unprecedented degree, recently spending north of $7 million weekly on TV ads alone, according to Advertising Analytics, a media tracking firm. In one week at the end of September, Harrison’s television advertising reached $7.8 million, the firm said — a record for a Senate candidate.
Those buys have included not only local advertising in South Carolina but also targeted national advertising, such as on the ACC Network during the recent meeting between the University of Virginia and the No. 1 ranked Clemson Tigers.
Although it’s unlikely that ad slots would be completely snapped up for the cycle, there will likely be fierce competition for the choicest programming by now. But a campaign like Harrison’s with ample money would have been able to confidently book ads early, avoiding a crunch as Election Day nears.
For now, Donehue estimates the average South Carolinian is already seeing around 200 Harrison campaign ads in a week. And that’s just on television — not to mention the billboards, mail, digital ads and grassroots outreach also inundating voters in the Palmetto State.
“You can’t play Angry Birds on your phone without having to endure a Jaime Harrison ad,” said Walter Whetsell, a South Carolina Republican strategist.
During a debate last week between Harrison and Graham, the Republican incumbent sought to turn Harrison’s conspicuous spending into a negative, suggesting that it reflected national interest in the race above the concerns of local voters.
“Where the hell is all this money coming from? What is it about South Carolina that has attracted almost a hundred million dollars into Mr. Harrison’s coffers?” Graham said. “They hate me. This is not about Mr. Harrison, this is about liberals hating my guts because I stood up for (Supreme Court Justice Brett) Kavanaugh when they tried to destroy his life. This is about me helping Donald Trump.”
Some Republicans believe that the extent of Harrison’s advertising could galvanize voters to Graham’s cause. But that is perhaps the most optimistic interpretation. Since the summer, public polling in the race has told a different story, with Harrison and Graham consistently in a dead heat — even as Harrison’s spending has ramped up. In a recent Quinnipiac University poll of the state, which showed the candidates tied, Graham also struggled with his favorability among Republicans, with 11% saying they view him unfavorably.
It is unclear how the race could evolve with Graham set to wield the gavel this week as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during hearings on Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination.
But Harrison’s dominant fundraising will likely provide a cushion to counter Graham’s earned media during the hearings — with more spending and more ads, adding to an already unprecedented landscape in South Carolina.
“This state,” Donehue said, “has never seen anything like this before.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of political consultant Wesley Donehue’s last name.