(Former South Carolina state Democratic Party chairman, Jaime Harrison’s negative ad on opponent Sen. Lindsey Graham (R))
By Jim Ellis
March 27, 2020 — A new statewide South Carolina political survey finds Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) falling into a surprisingly close race with former state Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison. According to the Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies firm (March 3-11; 804 likely South Carolina general election voters), Sen. Graham’s lead over Harrison has dwindled to just 47-44 percent.
Several points about this survey. First, the Brilliant Corners operation is a relatively new firm, one that we are only seeing for the first time, and the entity doesn’t even have a reliability rating from the FiveThirtyEight statistical operation that evaluates all polling firms. Therefore, little exists with which to compare their work. Second, this poll is not in line with other published data and, third, the survey was already two weeks old before publishing.
The other two surveys released this year both give Sen. Graham double digit polling margins. East Carolina University went into the field in early February (Jan. 31-Feb. 2; 1,756 registered South Carolina voters) and projected the senator to be holding a 51-38 percent lead over Harrison. NBC News/Marist College followed a couple of weeks later (Feb. 18-21; 2,382 registered South Carolina voters) and found a similar ballot test result, 54-37 percent, in the senator’s favor.
On the other hand, the national Democrats believe this is a sleeper race for them, and based upon Harrison’s prolific fundraising, they might be right. At year’s end, Harrison had raised an impressive $7.6 million with no candidate investment. That amount cost a fair amount to raise, however, as he was left with $4.7 million in his account to begin the election year.
This is a far cry from the gross amount obtained, but is still more than enough to already run a credible campaign effort in a smaller state with inexpensive media markets. Accounting for likely outside spending and considerably more that Harrison will raise, the South Carolina Senate campaign could become an “A” level race in terms of competitive effort.
Yet, as impressive as Harrison’s fundraising is, the numbers don’t compare to Sen. Graham’s financial bottom line. During the same period, the three-term incumbent raised a whopping $16.8 million and had $10.3 million in the bank to begin election year 2020.
Sen. Graham, though a strong electoral politician, is not without his weaknesses. Originally elected to the Senate in 2002 to replace the venerable Sen. Strom Thurmond, (R) who served just over 46 years in the Senate after winning election as the state’s governor, Graham had served four terms in the US House and just one two-year stint in the South Carolina House of Representatives.
In his three Senate races, Graham’s average vote percentage is only 55.8 percent, generally considered low by national incumbent standards. Much of this is due to the state’s large African American population (27.1 percent; fifth, nationally) that performs as the most loyal of Democratic Party constituencies. Yet, in those same elections, Sen. Graham’s cumulative major party general election opponents have only garnered an average of 41.4 percent.
He has in the past, however, had Republican base problems. Largely because of his now improved relationship with President Trump and some national statements and positions that conservatives rallied around, any difficulty Lindsey Graham might have had in unifying the Palmetto State’s Republican voters has been neutralized.
When Trump first entered the national race, and Sen. Graham was one of his opponents, their relationship was poor, however. Harrison depicts that in a newly released ad (see top) in an attempt to drive a wedge among GOP base voters.
Sen. Graham’s standing within his own party is a far cry from his 2014 primary challenge where almost 44 percent of the GOP primary voters supported one of the six candidates who opposed him. Therefore, he is in strong position if the Harrison challenge continues to develop.
The South Carolina race could become interesting and the end result might be closer than one would have originally expected. Still, it is difficult to see the South Carolina political climate changing to the point where Sen. Graham would be in danger of actually losing a general election campaign, particularly in a presidential year with President Trump leading the ticket in what should be one of his stronger base states.