Could the S.C. Primary Be A Harbinger of a Very Bad Year for Lindsey Graham?

February 25, 2020 by Dan McCue
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) speaks to reporters upon arrival to the U.S. Capitol for the Senate impeachment trial on Jan. 28, 2020 in Washington, D.C. President Donald Trump's legal defense team is expected to conclude their arguments today and begin answering written questions from Senators on Wednesday. (Mario Tama/Getty Images/TNS)

It is the kind of assertion that brings a reporter up short, temporarily. To hear it twice, in two completely separate conversations, was astounding.

It was the idea that as result of changing demographics and highly successful voter registration drives across the state, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican who has represented South Carolinians in Washington since his first term as a Congressman began in Jan. 1993, could face a day of reckoning in November as he seeks his fourth six-year term in the Senate.

Of course, Graham, who succeeded Strom Thurmond in the Senate in 2003, has heard people count him out before. Yet he’s never gotten less than 54% of the vote in any of his electoral bids.

In 2014, Graham faced multiple primary challengers and ultimately crushed them all, sailing to re-election by 15 percentage points.

This year, Democrats in the state have put their faith in Jaime Harrison, the former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman, who is hoping to capitalize on dissent caused by Graham’s pivoting from presidential critic to one of Donald Trump’s most loyal supporters.

In the YouTube video announcing his candidacy, Harrison described Graham as “a guy who will say anything to stay in office.”

“Lindsey O. Graham can’t lead us in any direction because he traded his moral compass for petty political gain,” Harrison said.

While that message might not resonate in most red states, the South Carolina electorate is not as high on Trump — or Graham — as it once was.

Though Trump soundly defeated Hillary Clinton, garnering 54.9% of the vote to her 40.7% in 2016, since taking office his net approval rating in South Carolina has decreased by 12 percentage points, according to Morning Consult.

One recent poll found Graham had a favorability rating in the state of just 35%, and according to the Charleston Post and Courier newspaper, 58% of voters who participated in the poll said they would prefer to vote for someone other than Graham.

Even with his opponent facing those headwinds, Harrison still has to contend with the realities that give South Carolina its reputation as a conservative red state; for one, it hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in over two decades.

But there are some Democrats in the state who believe that will soon change. Among them is Kate Franch, chair of the Greenville County Democratic Party.

Greenville, a county in the upstate, is ordinarily thought of as being at or near the red hot center of Republicanism in the state. But Franch said things have been changing.

For one thing, sustained economic development has changed the face of the business community, which now is more likely to embrace a moderate Republican than the tea party members who once held sway in the region.

“These are not people who generally support Donald Trump and they do not support Lindsey Graham any longer,” Franch said.

“There’s a very large, moderate Republican voter pool here … looking for a candidate to get behind,” she continued. “I mean, we’re a long way from the Atlanta suburbs, where a profound migration to blue is going on, or even Charleston or Columbia in the mid-state, which have always tended to be blue. But, there’s something significant happening here, and now we have a very viable candidate in Jaime Harrison.”

Franch said at the same time precincts in her county have grown more blue, the Democrats who were always there are motivated in a way she hasn’t seen in a long, long time.

“There’s a lot more activism among Democrats here than there was in 2016,” she said. ”In fact, we’ve had protesters outside Lindsey Graham’s office, every Tuesday, since January 2017, rain or shine — and now they’re expanding those protests to Saturdays. So there’s a level of commitment to ousting Graham that I don’t think we’ve seen before.”

Harrison will also likely have to bank on an energized black electorate, that was somewhat absent in 2016.

Todd Shaw, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina, noted that while the importance of the African-American church has diminished slightly in recent years — a by-product of fewer young people attending church — its place in electoral politics has been partly filled by other organizations like civil rights and voter education groups, party and campaign organizations and civic and fraternal organizations.

Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based political strategist, told The Well News that as of the 2018 mid-terms, there are more than 1 million minority members in the state who are registered to vote.

In a state in which there is a total of 3.3 million voters, that’s a profoundly significant number, particularly with a majority of them expected to turn out and vote against Trump.

“The more voters we organize, energize and galvanize and register for the primary, the more it sets Jaime Harrison up for success,” Seawright said.

“At the same time, it’ll be interesting to see what happens in the primary,” he said. “If the black turnout is high for the primary, that will be an indicator that enthusiasm is high in the community … and Jamie will need that enthusiasm to defeat Lindsey Graham.”

But for all this, some suspect Democrats are fooling themselves if they seriously believe Graham is vulnerable this year.

Dr. David Ransom of Clemson University put it succinctly: “South Carolina is solid safe for Sen. Lindsey Graham,” he said.

While he conceded much of what the Democrats said was true, at the end of the day, he still believes the Upstate region — Graham’s stronghold — is a bright red region in what is still “a base Republican state.”

David Woodard, a recently retired colleague of Ransom’s, also wasn’t buying into the Graham vulnerability narrative.

“Look at the past statewide elections,” he said. “Yes, some of the Greenville precincts are turning blue, one has a homosexual member of the state legislature. However, Greenville is booming and outside the downtown area are precincts that vote 80% Republican in general elections. They are huge precincts, with 4,000 to 5,000 voters in some of them. There are counties in S.C. that will not have the number of voters that are in a couple of Greenville precincts.”

Given the impeachment hearings and widespread criticism of Trump by non-Republicans, Woodward suggested there may even be a higher level of  loyalty to the GOP this year.  

“Yes, moderate Republicans — read born Yankees who retire to the South– are moving here,” he said.  “The effect of living here is that they keep some ideas about economics and even social issues … but they always vote Republican.  Some of the retirement communities are so strong in the GOP that candidates don’t visit there – they know how they will vote.”

In sum, Woodward said, “Jamie Harrison has about as much chance of beating Lindsey Graham as I do of singing opera in New York City.”  

“He may say he’s viable, and early on, when it doesn’t count, people will say nice things about him.  However, when the heat is on, and the votes really count, he’ll be lucky to get 40% of the vote. If Bernie Sanders is the Democratic nominee, then I’ll lower that to 35% of the vote,” Woodward concluded. 

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