CENTRAL, S.C. — At the 2012 Republican National Convention, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a champion of bipartisan immigration reform, warned his party they had a problem.
“We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term,” he said.
Now, his very political survival could turn on the efforts he has since made to tie himself to a voting bloc he once dismissed.
Over the past few years, the third-term senator jettisoned that conciliatory political persona and hitched his wagon to President Trump’s fiery star, which seemed like an obvious recipe for 2020 success in a scarlet state like this one. But he is now embroiled in the battle of his career against Jaime Harrison, a former state party chair trying to be the first Black Democrat elected to the Senate from the Deep South. Harrison raised a staggering $57 million over the last three months, and the Cook Political Report rates the race a “toss-up” — a startling turn of events for South Carolina, which hasn’t elected a Democratic senator or governor in more than 20 years.
The race has been turbocharged by Graham’s outsize role as a defender of the president and a key player in his effort to reshape the Supreme Court. As the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he will preside over the confirmation hearing of Judge Amy Coney Barrett beginning Monday — proceeding despite a clarion 2018 promise not to fill a Supreme Court vacancy so close to this election.
Graham has called the confirmation process the “Super Bowl” of politics, and he is betting it will fire up South Carolina conservatives who have long distrusted him even as it riles up the Democrats determined to highlight his hypocrisy as another reason to send him packing.
“They hate me. This is not about Mr. Harrison. This is about liberals hating my guts,” a pugilistic Graham declared during a debate with Harrison Oct. 3.
But the story of Graham’s vulnerability in a state he has represented in Congress since 1995 begins not with the left but with his persistent problems on the right — which he attempted to tamp down once and for all through his alliance with Trump. And his struggle raises questions about the future of his party if its standard-bearer goes down in November.
“If Graham’s in any jeopardy at all,” said Dan Carter, an emeritus professor at the University of South Carolina, “it’s because of Trump and the fact that he had to go through all these contortions to protect himself on the right in the new Trump party.”
Democrats have an uphill battle, but they are hoping he will ultimately be seen both as too moderate for the most conservative voters — who have a third-party candidate they could back instead — and too Trumpy for moderate voters they are attempting to siphon off.
Graham, a former military lawyer, flipped his congressional district here in the upstate region of South Carolina in 1994 after a century of Democratic control, campaigning for term limits and against gays in the military. In 2003, he went onto the Senate, where he had a moderate countenance — an impression fueled by his close friendship with Arizona Republican John McCain and by his eagerness to join such bipartisan groups as the Gang of Eight that worked on immigration reform during the Obama presidency. He also crafted climate legislation with Democrats.
He treated the Tea Party movement with undisguised disdain and survived primary challenges from the right in 2014 in part because so many conservatives jumped in to split the field, but he didn’t see the other asteroid that was coming to reshape his party. Graham’s doomed 2016 presidential bid — in which he called then-candidate Trump a “kook” who was “unfit for office” — flamed out before Iowa.
By 2018, he had moved toward Trump, becoming a golfing buddy of the president and an angry defender of his Supreme Court pick that year, Brett Kavanaugh, during a messy confirmation process that turned on accusations of sexual assault. In a party that had changed around him, Graham’s days of presenting himself as a moderate were long gone.
“As it relates to crossing the aisle or building consensus, I think he is fundamentally a builder and not a destroyer,” said Karen Floyd, the former chairwoman of the state’s Republican Party. “When the timing permits, he’ll build more.”
Democrats have gleefully seized on the shift as evidence Graham can’t be trusted. “Lindsey Graham is a flip-flopper. Flipping flippity flippity flop,” said Trav Robertson, the chair of the South Carolina Democrats. “And that’s why Lindsey Graham’s gonna lose.”
His transformation was a bet on voters like Steve Buchanan, 63, who just might embody the “angry white guy” Graham warned about eight years ago. On a recent afternoon, Buchanan had donned his Trump hat and T-shirt for a walk up and down Main Street in Greenville which he described as a “silent protest.”
Buchanan voted against Graham in the primary but is planning to back him in November, “taking him at his word” that he will deliver the confirmation of Barrett.
“For him not to do that, he would definitely lose his seat,” Buchanan said.
But Graham’s unyielding allegiance to Trump could hurt with voters who find themselves doubting the president after nearly four tumultuous years.
“He over-corrected,” said Brad Hutto, a Democratic state senator who was recruited by Harrison to run against Graham in 2014. “This race isn’t going to be won on the far right, it’s going to be won in the middle. And that’s why he’s having problems.”
Take Sue Dorfner and her daughter, Cathy Freeman, an administrative employee at Clemson University, who were waiting to get their hair cut on a salon here in Central — the town where Graham grew up in, living adjacent to his family’s bar.
Both women supported Trump in 2016, and both are now determined to vote against him because they have come to view him as, in Dorfner’s words, a “petulant brat.” And they have decided to back Harrison over Graham.
“He’s attaching himself to Trump’s coattails, and he’s wishy-washy — goes back and forth on this or that, depending on what public opinion is at that particular time,” Dorfner groused.
Both Greenville and Central are in a part of northern South Carolina called The Upstate, a region that embodies Graham’s problem. It is a conservative stronghold, containing counties where he didn’t break 50 percent during his primary this year. But it’s also home to lots of Democrats, especially in Greenville, and Harrison’s enormous financial advantage has allowed him to spend $13 million advertising in this market alone, according to a tally by Advertising Analytics — an unheard-of sum for a Democrat here that is only exceeded by the $15.4 million he has spent in the Charlotte, N.C. market, which reaches across the border into Rock Hill and the surrounding area.
“They’ve got spaghetti-against-the-wall money,” said Drew McKissick, who chalked up chairman of the state Republican Party, who chalked up Harrison’s polling numbers to his financial advantage.
Democrats are hoping there is something bigger going on. They have watched Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia edge bluer, and they believe South Carolina could be next. In 2018, a Democrat won the coastal First Congressional District for the first time since the early 80′s; earlier this year, another Democrat flipped a state House seat outside of Charleston after years of Republican control.
They are also hoping to get a boost from demographic trends. The number of people of color registered to vote in the state passed 1 million for the first time this year, and during the 2018 midterms, 56 percent of voters were women, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
And in Harrison, they have a candidate with a compelling personal backstory, who grew up poor but made it to Yale, became an aide to Representative Jim Clyburn, and then a lobbyist.
He has campaigned largely through his ads, making few in-person appearances amid the pandemic, and was unavailable for an interview. He downplays his party identification and focuses his message on such issues as health care and Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Harrison also has sought to portray Graham’s shift on the Supreme Court seat as at odds with Southern values because he vowed his party would not fill a vacancy in an election year after blocking President Obama from doing so in 2016.
“The greatest heresy that you could do as a public servant is to betray the trust of the people that you took an oath to serve, and that’s what you’ve done,” Harrison said on the debate stage. “Just be a man of it and stand up and say, you know what, I’ve changed my mind.”
Still, many Republicans see Graham’s willingness to charge ahead with Monday’s Supreme Court nomination hearings as being his greatest asset.
“He has an opportunity to put another conservative Supreme Court judge on the bench and somewhat take credit for it … the timing couldn’t be more perfect,” said Dennis Getter, 71, the second vice chair of the York County Republicans, after that group held a meeting a couple of weeks ago.
“Now Lindsey’s proved himself as a conservative commodity,” Getter said. “Let’s break down the doors for him.”