‘Love not hate’: Protesters chant at Rock Hill office of Sen. Lindsey Graham
A billionaire hedge fund manager from California will help mobilize Democratic voters in South Carolina.
A Washington, D.C.-based political organizer has offered himself up as a resource to Palmetto State progressive activists.
And the national fundraising apparatus for Democratic U.S. Senate candidates is spending money on ads in the state, a reliably Republican stronghold.
As U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham continues to be a polarizing political figure for his embrace of President Donald Trump, national interest in defeating the Seneca Republican next year is growing. In May, the hashtag “LindseyGrahamResign” trended on Twitter.
This isn’t the first time national Democrats have backed a South Carolina campaign to oust a GOP incumbent, said S.C.-based Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright.
In 2009, after Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson shouted “you lie” during President Barack Obama’s address to Congress, Democrats mobilized around Wilson’s challenger, Rob Miller, an Iraq War veteran. Miller ultimately lost by nine percentage points.
“We’ve seen the winds before” of outside engagement, Seawright said. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen a big storm before. There could be one coming.”
But even if there is enough national energy to sustain — in the words of Beaufort activist Carol Corbin — a “Lose Lindsey” movement, it’s not guaranteed that the national attention will help a Democratic challenger’s cause.
Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University, said S.C. Democrats are technically in a “lose-lose” situation this time around.
If they accept and highlight national help, they could actually drive more Republicans to mobilize in defense of Graham. But if they snub the backup, they will put themselves at a longterm disadvantage as they try to build the Democratic Party in their state.
“Since he has gotten more credibility among the further-right Republicans in South Carolina, and to the degree that the national Democratic Party say ‘he is an enemy to us,’ that’s going to make Lindsey Graham more beloved among conservatives in South Carolina,” said Huffmon.
At the same time, Huffmon added: “These are first steps. Democrats have become the seemingly permanent minority in South Carolina, and if they ever want to change that, it’s going to have to be with small steps like this.”
‘People get disappointed’
South Carolina Democratic activists insist they aren’t sitting around waiting for national help to come.
In Sun City on Thursday afternoon, members of three local chapters of the national anti-Trump Indivisible organization are hosting an “empty chair town hall,” where participants will pose questions to a cardboard likeness of Graham because they say the senator declined their invitation to show up in person. Over 300 people have signed up to attend so far.
Corbin and Anne Dickerson, leaders of Indivisible Beaufort, hope the town hall will have a major mobilizing effect as they work to set up an account with Act Blue, a Democratic online fundraising tool, to solicit contributions towards buying social media and billboard ads around the state.
“Every time I hear his name brought up on the national stage as someone as doing appalling things for the country, it just makes me grateful and helps give us some extra energy for doing what we can do,” Dickerson said.
But organizers are also hoping a special guest appearance by Randy Parraz, a veteran political and labor organizer, will also energize S.C. activists.
“He’s a dynamo,” said Corbin, who, along with others, met Parraz in Washington, D.C., earlier this year at a “Need to Impeach” summit convened by the billionaire Tom Steyer.
Following the summit, S.C. activists cobbled together $1,000 in speaking and travel fees to bring Parraz to South Carolina to hold a strategy session on how to flip Graham’s Senate seat. Parraz agreed to return to the state to emcee the Thursday town hall in exchange for having his air fare covered.
Parraz is best known for orchestrating the 2011 recall election that ousted Russell Pearce, the Republican president of the Arizona state Senate responsible for helping draft an infamously restrictive immigration law. In an interview with The State, Parraz said he could offer South Carolinians a template for how to defeat a similarly entrenched incumbent like Graham.
“We took out a sitting president of the Senate, a Tea Party racist who was Trump-like,” said Parraz. “So Lindsey Graham was interesting to me because he thinks like Russell Pearce. They think they’re untouchable, they can ignore people, disrespect people and still maintain their positions of power.
“People get disappointed,” Parraz continued. “They start believing headlines that these people aren’t beatable.”
‘Might have a shot’
Still, there are risks in accepting help from political outsiders, however high their profiles or impressive their resumes.
Parraz may have had experience bucking expectations when it comes to challenging conservative incumbents, but a far-left progressive with union roots might not play well in a “Right-to-Work” state.
Republicans working for Graham are already painting the activists aligned with Parraz as outliers.
“In late June, our office informed the leaders of the liberal group Indivisible that Senator Graham would not be participating in their sham town hall,” Kevin Bishop, Graham’s spokesman, said in a statement. “The members of Indivisible are extreme liberals out of touch with the majority of South Carolinians.”
S.C. Republicans are just as likely to demonize efforts from Steyer to boost anti-Graham sentiment in the state.
Now a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, Steyer rose to prominence this election cycle with his national campaign to pressure Democrats to pursue impeachment against Trump — a crusade Republicans call extreme and even some Democrats consider an unhelpful distraction.
Several S.C. activists told The State that Steyer was at one point signaling plans to invest heavily in efforts to defeat Graham in South Carolina. People close to Steyer dispute that any such pledge was made.
But Steyer’s “Need to Impeach” campaign in March ran a TV ad in South Carolina accusing Graham of being “scared” of Trump, and his $50 billion investment in super PACs focused on winning back control of the U.S. Senate could fund efforts to help Graham’s Democratic challenger.
That challenger is likely to be former state party chairman Jaime Harrison, who is being viewed as the most viable candidate Democrats have fielded for a U.S. Senate campaign in South Carolina in years and is being endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
“Graham and the rest of the GOP are putting ideology and corporate profit before the good of the American public and they need to be voted out,” said Steyer’s spokesman, Alberto Lammer.
Mitch Siegel, a leader of Lowcountry Indivisible, emphasized that national help alone won’t flip Graham’s seat.
“We needs to be the ones directing this with the assistance of national organizations,” he said. “If national organizations come in by themselves, they’re not going to do better than anybody else.”
Corbin was also realistic about their chances.
“This is a longshot,” she said, “but depending on if we can get national support for this, we might have a chance.”