Jaime Harrison pitches SC Democrats on possible US Senate run against Graham

An announcement could be imminent that a prominent S.C. Democrat plans to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in 2020.

Jaime Harrison — a former S.C. Democratic Party chairman who now has a leadership position with the Democratic National Committee — met with Democrats in the S.C. House and state Senate on Tuesday.

The meetings were a chance for Harrison to talk about his interest in the U.S. Senate race to some of the state’s most prominent Democratic elected officials, a courtesy in advance of a formal announcement.

In a meeting Tuesday with the S.C. House Minority Caucus, Harrison spent 10 minutes behind closed doors addressing assembled lawmakers. He got a warm reception as he worked the room, hugging state representatives that he has known for years.

“It’s great seeing members, friends that I’ve had for a long time. It’s good chatting with them about my thoughts and the potential here,” Harrison told The State after the meeting. “We really do think the South and South Carolina is on the cusp of some major changes. But it’s going to take a lot of energy, hard work, effort and unity. Unity is really, really important for a minority party. That was the crux of the discussion.”

Harrison did not make any official announcements or ask legislators for campaign contributions. But, he acknowledged, beating Graham, who has more than $3 million in cash in his campaign account, will “take a lot of money.”

S.C. House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said Harrison was the first potential Graham challenger that Democrats in the state Legislature have heard from. Rutherford said he hopes more candidates emerge in other races.

“In 2020, the more candidates that Democrats can field, the better off we are because people are paying attention,” Rutherford said. “They’re tired of treason at the highest ranks of government, and they want to do something about it at every level.”

Since last fall, Harrison has been hinting heavily that he will challenge Graham, incensed about the Republican’s forceful defense of Brett Kavanaugh amidst allegations of sexual misconduct during his confirmation hearings for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Since that time, Harrison has seized on every opportunity to establish a paper trail on Twitter of opposition to Graham, whether it is taking issue with his policy positions, his conservative rhetoric or his full-throated support of President Donald Trump.

Should Harrison jump into the race, he would face steep odds in defeating Graham, a 24-year incumbent of the U.S. House and Senate, combined. Graham now is the chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, where he will play a role in confirming Trump’s conservative judges — including, perhaps, another Supreme Court justice.

Graham never has been more popular with the GOP base in South Carolina and nationally after his defense of Kavanaugh, which made the Seneca Republican a sought-after attraction at GOP campaign events across the country before the 2018 midterms.

But Harrison likely would be as strong a candidate as S.C. Democrats can field, given his connections to the party inside the state and his ties to national Democrats, who could help him raise money and boost his profile.

He would have an incredibly strong backer in U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of Columbia, a S.C. Democratic party kingmaker. Harrison formerly worked for Clyburn on Capitol Hill and considers the congressman a mentor. Clyburn undoubtedly would help Harrison make connections to prominent fundraisers and appear with him at events.

At an event in Greenville on Monday, Graham didn’t say whether he was worried about a possible Democratic challenge. But he cautioned Republicans that they must be vigilant in protecting South Carolina — and other Southern states — against Democratic takeovers.

“A word of warning: They are coming after us. Big time. The South is beginning to change,” Graham said. “Virginia is not the Virginia it was four years ago. Our friends in North Carolina: Trump won, but it was close. Georgia: There’s gonna be a contest from hell in Georgia. South Carolina. We’re not gonna rest on our laurels.”

Harrison said Tuesday he agreed Republicans should be worried about Democratic gains in the South.

“Things are changing. People are no longer scared in the South to claim they are a member of the Democratic Party. They’re seeing what’s coming out of the Republican Party, and they’re at least open to taking another look at the Democratic Party, and that’s all we can ask,” Harrison said. “It’s going to be incumbent upon us to make the case about why they should vote for us and our candidates.”

Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where her reporting on South Carolina politics appears in The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.
Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.