Ads, turnout and the path to victory: Political analysts weigh the stakes in the SC Senate race

Does political newcomer Jaime Harrison have a chance against incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham?
Does political newcomer Jaime Harrison have a chance against incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham?(WIS)
Updated: Oct. 22, 2020 at 1:03 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - South Carolina political insiders are calling the U.S. Senate race between Sen. Lindsey Graham and Jaime Harrison one of the tightest Senate races in recent memory.

Both Graham and Harrison have raised record amounts of money and blanketed TVs and other screens in ads. Recent polls have shown the candidates are tied, or within a few points of each other.

“It’s unquestionably one of the most competitive races South Carolina has seen in a generation or more,” said Robert Godfrey, Republican strategist and former spokesman for Gov. Nikki Haley.

Former Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges agrees the race is “really close.”

And even some of Graham’s most ardent supporters admit the senator must keep fighting in the last stretch of the election.

“Graham doesn’t have this in the bag,” State Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said -- before adding that she thinks Graham is leading now.

While optimistic about her candidate’s chances, Democratic strategist and spokeswoman for the Lindsey Must Go PAC, Lauren Harper, said both candidates are within striking distance of the other.

South Carolina has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since Fritz Hollings won his last race in 1998.

Harper believes Harrison will be able to win by turning out record numbers of Black, moderate, and first-time voters.

“When you have a Black candidate running for statewide office, it’s kind of akin to the President Obama electorate that came out,” she said. “When you have someone who can inspire people because they can relate to them, they are going to come out in droves.”

She said Harrison’s message is reaching people and resonating with potential voters.

Hodges calls Harrison’s campaign one of the best in recent memory.

“The major factor in this will be a couple things,” the former Democratic governor said. “One -- Democratic turnout, how well will Democrats turnout in this election. And the second factor is going to be suburban voters, particularly women -- are they going to show the sort of gender gap that has been shown in other elections around the country.”

Hodges explained he thinks South Carolina’s electorate is changing as more people move to the Palmetto State, and he points to Lowcountry Democrat Joe Cunningham winning in 2018 as evidence of that shift.

Supporters of Graham believe the senator’s path to victory lies in his ability to excite voters in his party and convince anyone leaning towards a third-party candidate, or planning to not vote in the race, to support him.

Godfrey said Graham is outspoken on issues he cares about and issues that are occasionally controversial, so some Republicans have been upset with him in the past. However, Godfrey said people admire his standing in the Senate.

“His stature goes far beyond what you’d image a senator from rural South Carolina,” he said.

Godfrey says the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court will help remind voters of Graham’s influence.

“These court fights… they motivate voters on both sides of the aisle,” he said. “But in a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats, this fight is something that has been an advantage for Senator Graham because he’s played a starring role as the chairman of the Judiciary Committee.”

Shealy also said the hearings will help Graham, and said the senator was “everybody’s hero” after the hearings for Justice Kavanaugh. Shealy doesn’t believe voters who supported the senator and his conservative values in the past will go against him during this election.

“I don’t think people will jump ship because of one thing that they didn’t like,” she said. “I think people will stick to what they know is the best thing for South Carolina.”

She added: “South Carolina is still a conservative state, South Carolina wants conservative leaders.”

However, Shealy does believe her constituents are tired of the negative ads both candidates are flooding the airwaves with in the final stretch of the election.

“They ought to quit with the negative and go with the positive, and say ‘here is what I’m going to do for you South Carolina. I’m going to make this a better place,’” she said.

Godfrey thinks all the ads, not just the negative ones, may be starting to hurt the candidates.

“There is no question there are diminishing returns from the ads coming into this state,” he said. “I don’t know how much more TV inventory, how many more ads we can see online.”

Harper, who is a spokeswoman for a PAC also running ads in this race, said she doesn’t believe the influx of ads will start to hurt the candidates.

“In-person contact with voters isn’t happening this year, so you have to reach people where they are,” Harper said.

When talking about Harrison’s latest ad featuring former President Barack Obama, she said, “Every new ad is something different it feels like.”

Harrison is using some of his record-breaking funds to put out ads about third-party Constitution candidate Bill Bledsoe.

The ads describe Bledsoe as “too conservative” for South Carolina.

But while Bledsoe will appear on the ballot voters will see on election day, the ads don’t make it clear Bledsoe dropped out of the race and threw this support to Graham.

“I think that it’s clever,” Hodges said. “It reminds voters who may like President Trump but may be put off by Lindsey Graham’s changing positions that there is somewhere they can vote other than Graham.”

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans don’t think the ads will make a difference in who wins the race.

“Jaime Harrison is going to do whatever it takes to siphon off votes, as small as it may be, to win this race,” Godfrey said. “But I think whatever he does on the margins will be negligible because Senator Graham is pretty well-defined.”

Shealy said voters are smarter than people give them credit for and won’t be convinced to vote for a third-party candidate in such an important race.

“I think those people in this state, and other states that things like this may be happening in, are smart enough to know a Constitution Party candidate is not going to win the election and you are throwing your vote out the election when you do something like that,” she said.

Harrison told reporters he is using the ads to inform voters.

“We’re educating people about all the folks who are on the ballot,” he said.

Despite the ads, events and fundraising that often comes in the final stretch of a heated race, Godfrey doesn’t believe either candidate is running out of steam.

“If these races didn’t get these guy’s competitive juices going, I don’t think they’d be running at all,” Godfrey said.

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