A drum line taps out a charging beat: clip clap boppa BOOM. Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar lock arms. They’re leading a packed procession down Washington Avenue toward the Columbia, South Carolina, statehouse to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. At the end of the chain of Democratic household names is a less familiar face. Jaime Harrison is bundled up in a black overcoat and matching scarf. Hundreds of people pile onto the grass in front of the capitol steps, huddling together for warmth. Various A-list politicians take the stage, but it’s Harrison who gets the applause of a headliner.
“In a country that has never had two black senators from the same state serve at the same time, hope is right here standing before you,” he says with an Obama-esque flourish. “We need you. We need you to knock on doors. We need you to register voters. We need you to tell your friends and strangers and everybody in between that hope is coming!” When I meet him on the right side of the stage after his speech, the 44-year-old is riding a high. We shake hands, pack into the back of a blue sedan, and speed south to tour his hometown of Orangeburg.
That was four months ago, when smiles weren’t hidden behind masks.
When I call Harrison in late May, both of us have found the quietest rooms in our respective homes to chat. He is in his basement, next to his son’s Lego City set. He has plastered Jaime Harrison for U.S. Senate signs on the TV behind him to create a makeshift step-and-repeat. His two kids, a five-year-old and a one-year-old, are upstairs with his wife, Marie, a law professor at the University of South Carolina. They split child-care duties: He takes the kids in the morning; she takes them in the afternoon. It doesn’t always work out perfectly. “Sometimes you get a fundraiser that you need to do, or a discussion with a constituent or a local mayor, and I’m doing it on Zoom with the Pack ’n Play sitting right next to me,” he tells me.
This is not how Harrison imagined trying to become the first South Carolina Democrat to win a statewide election in 14 years. Before the pandemic, Harrison’s team had a meticulous strategy built on changing the electoral math. But despite his early fundraising success and favorable polling, most forecasters still predict that his opponent, Lindsey Graham, one of the most recognizable Republicans in the nation, will win. “When you break down the white vote, the black vote, the Democratic vote, the Republican vote, and the independent vote in its current form, Democrats lose by about 150,000,” Don Fowler, the former chair of the Democratic National Committee, told me in January. Democrats have forfeited the South for so long because the numbers do not work.
The Republican Party’s strength in the South is no accident. In the early 1960s, Republicans thrust themselves to power through the “Southern strategy,” an effort to increase their base of white voters by appealing to racism. The strategy—coupled with Democratic support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—led to a categorical switch of white southern voters from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. As Fowler put it: “The underlying view of a lot of people in many southern states [now], in particular South Carolina, is that the Democratic Party is the party of African Americans, and only unusual white people associate with it.”
Harrison began this year knowing that he needed to register tens of thousands of voters and win over moderate and independent voters, as well as voters who had grown disillusioned with Graham, one of President Donald Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill. Stacey Abrams, who has endorsed Harrison, may have been the most successful candidate to employ a similar strategy in a statewide election in the South. She still lost her 2018 gubernatorial race in Georgia—a state Trump won by a smaller margin in 2016 than he did in South Carolina. Historically, South Carolina Democrats have failed to build a robust coalition of voters. Harrison was finally orchestrating a campaign to do just that. He was a Democratic rising star, the potential face of a changing South. And then the coronavirus arrived.
Back in January, Harrison took me to his old neighborhood in Orangeburg. We stopped by the triplex he’d lived in with his mom and grandparents when he was in high school. The eggshell-white paint was chipping from the facade, and I could see bent window screens. At nearby Orangeburg-Wilkinson High, he had been the president of the student council, a member of the academic-quiz-bowl team, and a delegate to the United States Senate Youth Program, which featured a weeklong excursion to the nation’s capital. When Harrison was elected president of his school’s National Honor Society in 1993, he sent a letter to the newly elected congressman from the district, Jim Clyburn, to ask if he would speak at his installation ceremony. If an 11th grader was willing to blindly ask a sitting member of Congress to do something like that, Clyburn told me, “I had to meet him.”
After high school, Harrison went to Yale to study political science. He grimaced when explaining how his classmates flaunted their wealth, and how intimidating the class work was. “You feel like you’re a Walmart kid on Rodeo Drive,” he told me. But by sophomore year, he had figured out how to navigate the campus culture; the classes felt easier. He ran for president of his college—ultimately serving two terms—and served as a co-chair of the Yale Black Political Forum. By the end of his senior year, he was introducing Tom Brokaw at commencement. He went back to his high school after graduation to teach social studies, hoping to expose Orangeburg kids to the world he’d found at Yale. The state’s public schools consistently rank among the worst in the nation. “I had kids who couldn’t find South Carolina on a map,” Harrison told me.
We drove past the prison that Union General William T. Sherman had used as his headquarters during the Civil War. We passed the cash-bingo spot that was once the bowling alley where the Orangeburg massacre began; highway patrolmen killed three young black men after a protest over racial segregation. After a year of teaching, Harrison left Orangeburg for Washington, D.C., to attend Georgetown Law, and to work at a nonprofit that helps low-income students apply to college. In his final year there, Harrison got a cold invite of his own. Clyburn had just become the vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and wanted someone from South Carolina to join the staff. Yelberton Watkins, Clyburn’s chief of staff, called Harrison in December 2002; in January, the kid with gumption from Orangeburg became director of floor operations, tasked with convincing representatives to toe the party line on votes.
As Clyburn rose through the ranks of the Democratic Party, so did Harrison. When Clyburn became chair of the House Democratic Caucus, Harrison became his executive director; when Clyburn became the majority whip, Harrison became his floor director. If there was a fracas in the House, it was Harrison’s job to quash it. In 2008, when Republicans symbolically walked off the House floor over the Democrats’ push to hold two George W. Bush aides in contempt, Speaker Nancy Pelosi rushed to Harrison to ensure that there would still be enough lawmakers present to constitute a quorum. He whipped out his Blackberry and began negotiating with Republican aides to get their members back to the floor. Half an hour later, 35 Republicans had returned—just enough for the House to vote on the measure.
He left the office in 2008 to join the Podesta Group, a Democratic lobbying firm founded by the brothers John and Tony Podesta. His stint as a lobbyist for groups ranging from universities to Bank of America was not an issue when he became chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, but when he later ran for chair of the Democratic National Committee, in 2017, liberal voters criticized him for it. He objected. “I won’t participate in this blanket assassination of various folks because some members of our party don’t agree with what their jobs are,” he said. He lost the race, but became an associate chair.
In January, at a stately white colonial home in Columbia, Harrison held court with potential donors. He began telling the room one of his go-to campaign stories. While canvassing for Vincent Sheheen, a Democratic candidate for governor, a few years earlier, Harrison had spotted a shotgun house down an unpaved road. He pulled up to the property and knocked on the door. An elderly black man answered.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Jaime Harrison, the chair of the Democratic Party. I’m here because this is the most consequential election in our lifetime.”
The man stopped him. “Son, you see that road you just came off of? That road was a dirt road when Ronald Reagan was president, it was a dirt road when the Bushes were president, it was a dirt road under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Son, that’s still a goddamn dirt road. So until either Democrats or Republicans pave my road, I don’t want to have to deal with any of you.”
The room of mostly white, college-educated donors went silent as Harrison spoke. “The dirt road is symbolic of the broken promises that politicians and parties have made over the course of generations here in South Carolina,” he said—promises to provide Wi-Fi to the 30 percent of South Carolinians that still lack it; to save endangered rural hospitals; to fix the schools. He got specific without going too deep. The smiles and approving nods signaled that the practiced spiel worked—at least on this crowd.
“He’s an unknown,” Drew McKissick, the South Carolina GOP chair, told me. “He has faced very few ... real, probing questions about what he actually stands for. So, you know, he’s able to be sort of all things for all people, so to speak, at least on the left side of the spectrum here in the state, to folks who might otherwise maybe even be inclined to be in the middle politically.” Policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal have no place down here, McKissick added. “South Carolinians are conservative. South Carolinians are not going to support radical liberal ideas.”
Over nearly 20 years, as Harrison has learned how to run a campaign, Lindsey Graham has been perfecting his political strategy.
When he first sought Strom Thurmond’s soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat in 2002, then-Congressman Graham explained the potholes that could blow the tires off his candidacy. If the Republican Party was divided, and if he did not win independent voters, he would lose. Graham had been held up as a “twang of moderation,” and he knew how to capture the spotlight. “In a world where media exposure often equals power, Graham is claiming star status and a share of influence with his uncanny gift for the camera-ready aphorism,” The Washington Post had written in 1998. He was a junior member of the House Judiciary Committee, and a “voice of reason.” He had been known to hold traditional conservative opinions, but he was willing to shift his views if they fell out of step with his constituency.
Graham attacked his first Democratic opponent, Alex Sanders, for opposing the death penalty and supporting abortion rights, and trounced him by 120,000 votes. In 2008, Graham beat his Democratic challenger, Robert Conley—a turncoat Republican who supported Ron Paul in a presidential election that featured Barack Obama—by nearly 300,000 votes. But then came the rise of the Tea Party, an extreme shift within the GOP that Graham fought. “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term,” he said at the Republican National Convention in 2012. By 2014, right-wing activists were at Graham’s throat for voting to confirm two of Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. They were also furious with him for supporting Obama’s immigration-reform package. In short, he was too willing to compromise.
Graham stuck to his guns. “It’s important for the Democrat Party and the Republican Party to show their members that there is a time to find common ground, and if you are willing to embrace that, you won’t lose your job,” he told NBC News in April 2014. “I want to make a statement about who we are in South Carolina. We’re conservative, but we’re not mad about it.” He romped his six primary challengers that year. Graham thought that strategy would hold when he ran for president in 2016; when a dark-horse candidate, Donald Trump, animated a base of support that brought out the party’s worst tendencies, Graham said so. “I think he’s a kook. I think he’s crazy. I think he’s unfit for office,” he explained on Fox News.
But Trump tapped into a vein of the Republican Party that betrayed something larger about its blood supply. As Trump surged, Graham steered toward the base: the voters who were conservative and mad about it. He recanted the beliefs he’d expressed about Trump and became the president’s golfing buddy. “What concerns me about the American press is this endless, endless attempt to label the guy some kind of kook not fit to be president,” he told CNN in 2017.
Graham declined to speak with me for this story, but McKissick, South Carolina’s Republican Party chair, spun Graham’s relationship with Trump as an unqualified positive when we spoke in February. “He's got the support of a very, very popular president” who dominates the state’s presidential polls.
But Graham has already lost some of the voters he said he needed to win in 2002, the ones who carried him in 2008 and 2014. A May poll from Civiqs, on behalf of Daily Kos, found that Graham and Harrison were tied at 42 percent. In recent months, South Carolina donors who formerly supported Graham—and who identify as politically moderate Republicans—have begun supporting Harrison. Richard Wilkerson, who has donated thousands of dollars to Graham’s campaigns in the past, has flipped to support Harrison, writing in The Greenville News: “Graham used to be criticized by more conservative people in the Republican Party for being a RINO (Republican in Name Only). They felt that his moderate stance on issues until 2017 was inappropriate. He is no longer that person.” A few zealous converts is not enough to flip a seat, though. Harrison needs tens of thousands of them.
When we spoke in early March, Harrison riffed on the work of a senator. It was more than flashing a pearl-white smile on television every night. “Flying on Air Force One is not that work; not addressing the issue of the quality of our water is not that work; not fighting against climate change given that we are at the epicenter of that fight is not that work,” he told me. South Carolinians, and any constituents of any state, for that matter, care about local issues: the workers laid off by Boeing in Charleston; the school system in Allendale County, which has been taken over by the state; the hospital that closed in Bamberg County. Those people were any senator’s base. Those people were the ones Graham forgot about. “If he believes partisan politics is his base and that’s what he has to do, then go ahead and do it,” Harrison said.
The Trump administration’s bungled response to the coronavirus has helped Harrison’s campaign. On Facebook Live and Zoom, he talks about the sorry state of rural health care in South Carolina and how the crisis in the state’s wretched public schools is being exacerbated by the virus. (His team has set up a conference line so the 30 percent of South Carolinians without broadband internet access can listen in.) And he pitches moderate policies that don’t deviate much from those of national Democrats. He’s pressured Graham to support Medicaid expansion, and berated the senator for declaring that only “over our dead bodies” would the Senate extend the weekly $600 federal boost for those who are unemployed past July 31.
Graham’s strategy of connecting with the base of the Republican Party could also benefit Harrison. By aligning with Trump, Graham could lose those independent, moderate voters who were so willing to support him when he was the Republican aiming to show the rest of the country a different face of his party. Some evidence indicates that those voters have been animated by the possibility of getting rid of Trump. In the South Carolina Democratic primary, there was a 131 percent increase in turnout among voters in some of the state’s whitest precincts, ones that are traditionally conservative. “The primary shows that there is tremendous energy for leadership change in South Carolina,” Harrison told me in March. The bump has shown up in Harrison’s poll numbers as well. In late April, the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball—two election forecasters—shifted the contest from “Safe Republican” to “Likely Republican.”
“We’re an independent state that trends Republican because Democrats run shitty campaigns, and we never want to admit that to ourselves,” Trav Robertson, the chair of the state Democratic Party, told me. Graham has historically convinced moderate Democrats that he’s a centrist, he added, but “he can’t convince moderate independents and Democrats that he is a moderate anymore.”
“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.”
Reverend Aaron McCoy is reading from the Bible—the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 43. The Democrats hoping to win the White House—and one hoping to head to the Senate—sit in the front pews at Zion Baptist Church in Columbia before the MLK Day march.
“Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”
An hour later, during his speech at the statehouse, Harrison picks up McCoy’s thread. “It’s easy to become cynical—to not speak up and to lose hope. It’s easy to think the struggle isn’t worth it. But never forget our state motto: ‘While I breathe, I hope,’” he said. “And hope is here.”
Even if the Harrison campaign is able to convince voters that he is the political moderate that Graham is not; that Graham is everything that’s wrong with Washington; that Harrison will make substantive, positive changes for the state; and that he will improve their quality of life, will he be able to convince them to vote for him? South Carolinians elected Tim Scott, the black senator from North Charleston, but he is a Republican. He often advocates policies that conservative and moderate white voters can get behind. Scott has voted in line with Trump 93.9 percent of the time.
But it would be Democrats’ folly to lean on the old understanding of the South, Harrison told me. In mid-February, for the first time in the state’s history, the number of registered nonwhite voters surpassed 1 million, according to the South Carolina Election Commission. A coalition of party leaders also successfully fought to eliminate a requirement that voters include their full Social Security number on voter-registration forms—which could dissuade voters wary of sharing such sensitive information with a stranger from filling out the form.
Harrison may not be the one to break South Carolina Democrats’ losing streak, but he’s going to spend the next several months trying. “In a state that led the secession but now helps lead the nation in nominating our president,” he told that freezing audience in January, “hope is here!” Will hope be enough?
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