Cash-flush Lindsey Graham joins GOP plot to oust SC Democrat Joe Cunningham

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham has his own race to win in 2020. But in a sign of confidence in his standing, the South Carolina Republican is making moves to help out in another key election battle in the state.

Graham has directed his campaign to put money, resources and manpower into the GOP operation to defeat Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District.

Republicans have some reason to worry — and commit resources early.

The 1st District voted for Trump in 2016, but Charleston County went for Democrat Hillary Clinton. Democratic energy in the county helped Cunningham win his upset election in 2018, wresting the Lowcountry seat from GOP control for the first time since 1981.

Even as he’s become one of the national GOP’s top targets next year, Cunningham, and whoever becomes the Democratic presidential nominee, could boost voter turnout for all Democrats in 2020.

“Charleston County is at the epicenter of the Democratic Party’s resurgence in South Carolina,” said former S.C. GOP Chairman Matt Moore said. “Smart Republicans, including Sen. Graham, recognize that fact.”

The State Republican Party announced plans long ago to hire a full-time staffer to run a district office that is singularly focused on building the operational structure to take out Cunningham.

That staffer, whom state GOP chairman Drew McKissick expects to announce by the end of the summer, will be on the ground months before Republican primary voters nominate a candidate to run against Cunningham. Once a nominee is selected, he or she will inherit the infrastructure the staffer has built — an army of volunteers, a likely voter database and an outreach and education strategy.

Graham’s team is involved in interviewing for this position. The senator also will be lending his own staff resources to efforts over the next year to help build the campaign infrastructure for the Republican 1st District candidate.

Foot soldiers on the ground will include members of the “Grassroots Leadership Team” that Graham’s campaign announced in July. The list of 117 party leaders and activists from around the state will assist in efforts to promote Graham over the next 15 months. There are 22 members of the team spread out over the four counties that make up portions of the 1st District.

Special attention was paid to building a particularly strong 1st District team, said Graham campaign manager Scott Farmer.

“The better Senator Graham can do along the coast, the better our Republican nominee for Congress can do running against Joe Cunningham,” Farmer said.

‘Incredible value’

In many ways, Graham’s wading into a race not his own is nothing new.

In every election cycle, S.C. Republicans gather together for a “victory” campaign that pools money and resources to help candidates up and down the ballot. The top Republican on the ticket typically does the heavy-lifting on fundraising. Last year, that was Gov. Henry McMaster.

For 2020, it will be Graham, and so far this election cycle he has contributed $5,000 to the state party.

Farmer also noted that Graham has always been a team player who likes to coordinate with down-ballot Republican races.

What is new is how early the “Victory 2020” effort is being put together — a full year ahead of schedule, which McKissick attributed to “the importance of the 1st District.”

Graham also is now enjoying the perks of his incumbency and strong standing with South Carolinians, which is allowing him to do things earlier, and bigger, than he ever has before.

Thanks to his alliance with President Donald Trump and defense of embattled Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh that went viral, Graham is enjoying widespread popularity in-state — he has a high number of small donors for an incumbent, according to a recent analysis by The State in partnership with Open Secrets — and nationally — major donors helped him raise a personal record-setting $3 million in the year’s second fundraising quarter.

And unlike in 2014 when he had to fend off multiple, far-right primary challengers, Graham’s GOP challengers this time around don’t pose serious threats.

“It’s an incredible value to have (Graham) and his folks at the table this early to help us take back a district that is a Republican district,” McKissick told The State of Graham’s involvement. “Not just for his name and, obviously, the notoriety he has … but it’s an opportunity for us to leverage our assets and our resources so we get more bang out of the buck for everything we’re putting into our campaigns.”

Looking ahead

Though Trump remains popular in South Carolina, there is a sense that Graham will also be a mobilizing force in the 2020 election cycle, and having him appear at campaign events alongside the Republican 1st District candidate will be helpful.

“Every election has become a base election, and there is no one more popular with the Republican base than Sen. Graham,” said Moore.

However, Moore added, Graham’s focus on building a strong presence in the 1st District was also good strategy — for the good of the party but also for himself.

In plenty of ways, Graham’s efforts to build an early operation in the 1st District could be as self-serving as it is benevolent: he has to keep an eye out for Jaime Harrison, his likely Democratic challenger who also boasts record-breaking fundraising numbers and has attracted national attention.

“South Carolinians just don’t trust Lindsey Graham, because he’s been on every side of every issue South Carolinians care about, from offshore oil drilling to health care — and I’m surprised other candidates want his hypocrisy and spinelessness dragging them down,” said Harrison’s campaign manager, Zack Carroll.

Farmer signaled he wasn’t worried.

“We will run an aggressive campaign and take nothing for granted, but we are confident that the voters of South Carolina will re-elect Sen. Graham because he’s been a proven conservative leader who gets things done.”

Asked if Cunningham was worried, spokesman Tyler Jones said that “instead of focusing on the next election,” Graham should support Cunningham’s legislative efforts to ban offshore drilling, a key issue for coastal voters.

Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.
Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.