Most everyone following the heated U.S. Senate contest in South Carolina recognizes that the opening of a U.S. Supreme Court seat—six weeks before Election Day—has shifted the balance of the race.
Which candidate will ultimately benefit, though, depends on who you ask.
Sen. Lindsey Graham was already facing a determined challenge from Democrat Jaime Harrison before Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death last Friday. Less than a day later, Graham officially discarded his stance from 2016 that high court appointments shouldn’t be made in an election year—and fully embraced his role as President Donald Trump’s warrior in securing a third Supreme Court justice.
The dramatic turn of events has already drawn passionate reactions on both sides of the aisle as the South Carolina race, once in the long shot column for Democrats, enters a critical stretch.
Top officials from both parties in South Carolina were quick to believe Graham’s approach was actually helping their respective candidate’s chances in November, as control of the Senate lies in the balance.
“This issue is going to be nothing but a plus for (Graham’s) campaign,” South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick said.
“Sen. Graham is basically digging his own grave by siding with Trump on every single issue” said Kenneth Glover, the chairman of the Orangeburg County Democratic Party. “He's lost his independence.”
Some Democrats see two big opportunities with Graham’s high court machinations under the microscope. One is a chance to galvanize South Carolina’s Black voters—who Harrison will need to turn out in historic numbers to secure a win—with a laser-like framing of the stakes of the race on core issues like health care, voting rights, and racial justice, all issues in which the court has disproportionate impact.
And the party also sees opportunity in replaying Graham’s words from 2016—when he defended blocking Barack Obama’s pick for the high court until the November election—over and over again on the TV airwaves with the tens of millions of dollars Harrison has raised so far. Even more money is likely to flow to Harrison from a national liberal base outraged by Graham’s moves.
While the senator has explained away his 2016 declarations, some Democrats believe that the hypocrisy of Graham’s statements will be clear enough to peel away a number of independent or even GOP-leaning voters.
Whether that sentiment is strong enough to help tilt a Senate seat in a more conservative state to the Democratic column, though, remains unclear—and Democratic party officials recognize the challenge.
“That's my impression, that this is the nail in Lindsey Graham's coffin and if we ever had a chance to flip this is it, this has done it,” said Debbie Smith, the chair of the Georgetown County Democratic Party, said about the state of the Senate race. “I’ve been wrong before.”
But other Democrats watching the race agree that while a court fight doesn’t entirely favor Graham, it still gives the incumbent an undeniable advantage in South Carolina, where Democratic candidates have long struggled to crack 45 percent of the vote statewide. “Lindsey Graham brings out every one of Donald Trump’s supporters and he wins,” said a Democratic operative. “If this does that, it’s not a net gain for Jaime… Graham doesn’t have to appeal to any Democrats.”
The Harrison campaign declined to comment on how Graham’s stance on the open Supreme Court seat was impacting the race. The Graham campaign did not respond to an email seeking comment Monday night.
As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Graham will run any confirmation hearing for a Trump pick. If that hearing happens before the election, or in the so-called “lame duck” session in the weeks after the Nov. 3 election, it ensures Graham’s place in the center of the wall-to-wall media coverage that accompanies a high court confirmation battle.
It also guarantees fresh relevance for his past statements and moves on judicial appointments. Only hours after Ginsburg’s death was announced, clips began to circulate on social media showing Graham defending Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) decision to block Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the high court following Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in 2016. Back then, said the GOP, the voters needed to decide in November who would get to confirm his replacement.
“I want you to use my words against me,” Graham said at the time. “If there's a Republican president in 2016 and a vacancy occurs in the last year of the first term, you can say Lindsey Graham said ‘Let's let the next president, whoever it might be, make that nomination.’”
Graham has, of course, backtracked on that position, leaning on two main reasons: one, he and fellow Republicans argue, the GOP now controls the Senate and the White House, so there’s no ambiguity as to what voters want. “No Senate has confirmed an opposite party president’s Supreme Court nominee during an election year,” Graham wrote in a Monday letter to Judiciary Committee members. With Trump’s win in 2016 and the GOP’s hold of the Senate in 2018, Graham said “we should honor that mandate.”
The second reason is what Graham described as Democrats’ alleged misconduct during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation process in 2018—“the destruction of this fine man,” he tweeted—amounted to a final straw for decorum on judicial matters, making total war acceptable. Those hearings, in the eyes of many Republicans, were central to Graham’s rehabilitation among Trump’s supporters, and Graham has raised them repeatedly in recent days.
“After the treatment of Justice Kavanaugh I now have a different view of the judicial-confirmation process,” Graham said in his Monday letter. “It’s clear there are one set of rules for a Republican president and one set of rules for a Democrat president.”
In South Carolina, Republicans see the confirmation fight as an invaluable boost for Graham—not that he desperately needed one, they’re quick to say—that shores up his biggest weakness at a pivotal moment in the 2020 campaign.
“It’s a godsend for Sen. Graham,” said Nate Leupp, chairman of the GOP in Greenville County, traditionally the Palmetto State’s greatest bastion of Republican votes. Graham-backers like Leupp have long been most concerned about the senator losing votes among a hardcore Trump-supporting base that has never fully come around to trusting him.
“This goes right to the base of supporting Trump and promoting a conservative justice,” said Leupp. “The only thing Sen. Graham had to shore up are people who voted against him in the Republican primary… This probably is what solidifies their vote for him.”
Some Democrats in the state were quick to point out that while Graham had been able to win some goodwill from Democrats in the past, Trump’s election and the senator’s support of the president has given them an opportunity to capitalize. But even amongst Democrats in the state there were differing opinions about whether Graham’s new Supreme Court stance merely further drives the Democratic base in the state or if it will broaden chances at moderate defections from Graham to Harrison.
Local Democratic leaders like Dorchester County Democratic party chairman Tim Lewis are hopeful that Graham’s backtracking will hurt the Republican’s appeal with “middle of the road” voters.
“These are good people and they see the hypocrisy,” Lewis said.
Even before the Supreme Court vacancy fight, it was clear the Graham-Harrison showdown was increasingly prominent on the national Senate map, where Democrats are aiming to flip several GOP-held seats to attain a majority. While key races in battleground states like North Carolina and Arizona have gotten plenty of attention so far this cycle, Harrison has continued to build a determined effort to unseat the incumbent as the race entered the final 50-day stretch to election day. Aside from Amy McGrath, the Democrat challenging McConnell in Kentucky, no other Democratic Senate candidate has raked in more than Harrison, who’s reported raising roughly $30 million—a staggering sum for this relatively small state.
That, say Democrats, has fueled Harrison’s rise. A Quinnipiac University poll released last Wednesday showed Graham tied with Harrison, each with 48 percent of the vote.
But Harrison’s team had also found themselves on the defensive recently after The Washington Free Beacon reported on a pair of Harrison’s key staffers’ offensive past social media history, which included one of them using a derogatory and homophobic term. The staffers are not leaving the campaign but both apologized and Harrison has denounced the tweets, The Post and Courier reported last week.
Yet the death of the beloved liberal icon and the promise of a SCOTUS battle has ratcheted up the emotion in the race even further.
Deborah Rodriguez, chair of the Colleton County Democratic Party, said she thinks it will “matter to people who maybe are on the fence," as she pointed to it creating trust issues with the senator.
“I think it just cements anybody who was already going to vote Republican and I think for people who are on the fence or maybe independent, I think this is going to be something that will help them, move them over to Jaime Harrison,” Rodriguez said.
Still, some others like Terri Jowers, executive committeewoman for the Barnwell County Democratic Party, were less optimistic about the impact even as she feels good about Harrison’s chances at an upset. But that didn’t mean she was giving up on raising the issue.
“This doesn't surprise me at all. Does it make me nauseated? Yes it does,” Jowers said. “It makes me absolutely heart-sick. But I just don't think that the average voter understands how absolutely critical this moment is and why this is so important. I wish they did. And I'm going to be doing everything I can to help people understand how impactful this moment is and how disingenuous it is of (Graham)to be flipflopping on this.”