‘You’re my guy’: Top Senate Dem urges Jaime Harrison to challenge Lindsey Graham

Days after announcing his exploratory bid to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in 2020, Democrat Jaime Harrison might have already secured the support of key national Democratic leaders.

At a meeting last week in Washington at the headquarters of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Harrison sat down with DSCC executive director Scott Fairchild and other senior staff, along with U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

“In essence, he told me, ‘you’re my guy,’” Harrison told McClatchy regarding Schumer. Though U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., is the DSCC chairwoman, Schumer — in his capacity as the top Senate Democrat — is closely involved in candidate recruitment and campaign strategy.

While the DSCC does not confirm or comment on conversations with candidates, a source familiar with the meeting described it as a “very good meeting.”

“Everyone thought he was very impressive and were excited about the fact that he’s running,” the source said of Harrison.

Harrison said he met with Cortez Masto separately in the weeks leading up to the announcement of his potential candidacy, saying she has been “absolutely fabulous as it relates to conversation and guidance and discussion.”

Enthusiasm from the national Democratic establishment this early in the election cycle is notable. Harrison has only launched an exploratory committee, not a formal campaign. The Democratic primary election is not until next year.

And it’s possible other Democratic candidates could enter the race against Graham, a 24-year incumbent who closed out his last reelection campaign with $2.4 million in cash on hand. By strongly aligning himself with President Donald Trump, Graham has solidified his support among conservatives, but has further alienated himself from Democrats who are eager to take him down.

The DSCC — which ultimately decides which U.S. Senate candidates will receive resources and fundraising support from Washington — has to tread carefully, since it doesn’t typically pick sides in a multi-candidate Democratic primary.

But there are reasons for the party machine to get behind a candidate early, said Harrison.

“This is what we talked about,” Harrison continued. “We need a candidate here who can not only mobilize and energize people on the ground in South Carolina but also who has the relationships in Washington.”

A native of Orangeburg, S.C., Harrison forged connections in Washington for many years as a senior aide to U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., a longtime top member of House Democratic leadership who is now House Majority Whip. Harrison returned to South Carolina in 2013 to become the first black chairman of the state Democratic Party.

After the 2016 election, Harrison ran for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, but ultimately settled for an associate chairmanship position, a portfolio that includes southern voter outreach and helping organize the party’s presidential primary debates and 2020 convention.

Between 2008-2016, Harrison also worked for the now-defunct Podesta Group, a lobbying and consulting firm with a roster of A-list clients.

Harrison said it was important for Democrats to back competitive candidates early, especially in his case.

“We are all very aware this is not going to be a cakewalk. We are going up against the guy who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee,” Harrison said of Graham. “I think we all acknowledge that it’s in Democrats’ best interest to be organized and focused on the task ahead.”

Schumer has already signaled he will be aggressive, starting now, in recruiting Democrats to take on powerful GOP incumbents next year in the competitive south.

He recently met with Amy McGrath, a former marine fighter pilot who lost a Congressional race in 2018, about challenging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Schumer has also spoken with Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate, about challenging U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga.

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.