‘What issues,” Sen. Lindsey Graham was asked at a recent debate, “will you dissent from your party on?” Mr. Graham, slouching over his podium, grinned wryly and said: “How long do you have?”
Mr. Graham, who has spent much of his 18-year Senate career fielding attacks from the right, is now a prime target of the left. His record is solidly conservative on guns and abortion, and he’s hawkish on foreign policy, but the South Carolina Republican is also famous for high-profile compromises with Democrats. In 2009 he negotiated a “cap and trade” proposal with Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman. He later pulled out of the deal, but not before earning the ire of conservatives.
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He has championed immigration reforms loathed by many of his constituents, and in 2009 and 2010 Mr. Graham voted to confirm both of Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominees—not, he said, because he liked their judicial philosophies, but because Mr. Obama had won the presidency fair and square and the choices were his to make.
“I voted for Kagan and Sotomayor,” he said at the Oct. 3 debate—he pronounces the latter name “soda-mire”—“and I got the crap beat out of me by Republicans here at home.” That’s true. In 2014 he won the Senate primary by a substantial margin, but he had six opponents and each of them targeted the incumbent’s ideological defections.
The situation is exactly reversed in 2020. The great majority of South Carolina Republicans support Mr. Graham’s friendly relationship with President Trump, but liberals regard it as a betrayal. Mr. Graham’s opponent, Jaime Harrison, is an African-American former lobbyist and party chairman and the recipient of enormous campaign contributions, mostly from out of state. Mr. Harrison raised $57 million in the third quarter, a U.S. Senate fundraising record. In total he has raised nearly $87 million and will almost certainly exceed $100 million. (Mr. Graham holds the previous South Carolina record, $13 million in the six years before the 2014 election.)
In 2020 Mr. Harrison plays the role of Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke in 2018: the dashing young progressive who, with lots of help from wealthy liberals in other parts of the country, could knock off a hated Southern Republican. It didn’t work out for Mr. O’Rourke, who lost to Sen. Ted Cruz and used his momentary fame to launch an even more unsuccessful presidential run.
The polls in South Carolina appear tighter. Two Quinnipiac surveys conducted in September have Mr. Graham and Mr. Harrison tied at 48% of likely voters. Mr. Harrison, notwithstanding his candidacy’s popularity elsewhere in the country, smartly distances himself from the national Democratic Party; he plays down some of his progressive policy views and calls the Green New Deal “too expensive.” He attacks Mr. Graham, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, for reversing his position on holding Supreme Court confirmation hearings in an election year.
In ordinary times, a race this close would mean rallies, town halls and glad-handing appearances everywhere—the kind of messy, unpredictable events that make the job an adventure for scribblers like me. But Mr. Graham is preoccupied in Washington with Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation. Mr. Harrison, in keeping with his party’s attitudinizing on the coronavirus, appears reluctant to flout public-health orthodoxy. There are no public events scheduled for either candidate.
The one event at which I saw the candidates themselves—the aforementioned debate at Allen University, a historically black college—had a lifeless, clinical feel. The public was barred, so the debate took place in an auditorium empty except for a few technicians and journalists, all dutifully distant and masked. Both candidates covered their faces until the debate started, and Mr. Harrison took the extra precaution of placing a 6-foot-high plexiglass shield between himself and Mr. Graham.
Another debate was scheduled for the following Friday in Spartanburg, but it turned into a pair of separate interviews when Mr. Harrison demanded on Thursday that Mr. Graham be tested for Covid-19 and Mr. Graham, citing a negative test a week earlier, refused.
Mr. Harrison’s plexiglass shield nicely symbolizes this sterile campaign. No rallies, no talking to the candidates, no querying their supporters. Instead we get innumerable TV ads and glossy mailers. South Carolina voters can’t turn on their televisions or open their mailboxes without seeing images of the candidates, alternately flattering and lurid.
Mr. Graham has one broadcasting advantage over Mr. Harrison: his chairmanship of the Barrett hearings. The senator’s spirited defense of Brett Kavanaugh two years ago earned the favor of conservatives who had grown unhappy with Mr. Graham for his centrist views on immigration and climate policy. A smooth path to Judge Barrett’s confirmation would consolidate his Republican base and, I suspect, get him above 50%. Whatever happens, there will be no dissenting from his party this time.
Mr. Swaim is a Journal editorial page writer.
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