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Meet Jaime Harrison, the leading Democrat trying to unseat Lindsey Graham in South Carolina

Harrison wants to flip a long-held Republican Senate seat in 2020.

Politician Jaime Harrison visits BuzzFeed’s “AM To DM” on October 28, 2019 in New York City.
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

Jaime Harrison, the first African American man to become South Carolina Democratic Party chair, is trying to do what many see as a long shot: unseat three-term senator and prominent Trump ally Lindsey Graham.

Graham is among the 23 GOP senators who are up for reelection in 2020, and his seat is rated “solid Republican” by Cook Political Report. While South Carolina hews closer to the center than some Republican states, its statewide elected officials tend to trend conservative: The last time the state elected a Democratic senator was over 20 years ago in 1998.

Harrison is making the bet that his focus on independent voters and on issues like Medicaid expansion will change this narrative. A native South Carolinian who currently serves as an associate director for the Democratic National Committee, he’s got deep-rooted attachments to the state and a vision for what he calls the “new South,” a region that’s becoming more diverse, with more African American and Latino voters in particular.

South Carolina has seen growth across demographic groups between 2010 and 2017, but white residents still make up about 64 percent of the population, according to a Post and Courier analysis.

“I push back on ‘super red, solidly Republican’” to describe the state, Harrison told Vox during a conference in Columbia. “South Carolina is not West Virginia. It’s not Oklahoma. It’s not Kansas.”

For Harrison, Graham presents an effective foil. Since Trump’s election in 2016, Graham has sought to paint himself as one of Trump’s top supporters in the Senate, defending everything from the president’s use of military construction money for the border wall to a recent comparison of the impeachment inquiry to a lynching.

Hitching himself to the president could be a good move for Graham’s reelection prospects. Though his approval rating isn’t bad (at 49 percent), Trump’s approval rating in the state is somewhat higher, not to mention that South Carolina went for Trump by roughly 15 points in 2016. Still, Harrison hasn’t been shy in going directly after these ties.

“He hasn’t done a town hall in over two years, but he’s on Fox News every other night,” Harrison told Vox.

Thus far, Harrison’s bid has seen strong early momentum. In the third quarter, the campaign raised a record $2.2 million, while Graham brought in a sizable haul of $3.3 million as well.

Harrison is one of multiple Democrats vying for the opportunity to take on Graham this year, — economist Gloria Tinubu has also filed her candidacy — but he’s by far the frontrunner. Previously a staffer for Rep. Jim Clyburn and a lobbyist in DC, Harrison is trying to make the case that regardless of ideology, the state’s voters are currently being neglected — and he’s the one to advocate on their behalf.

Vox spoke with him earlier this fall about his policy priorities, campaign strategy, and stance on structural reforms like eliminating the filibuster. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Li Zhou

When people say “Can a Democrat even win?” in South Carolina — a super red, solidly Republican state — what is your response?

Jaime Harrison

I push back on super red, solidly Republican. South Carolina is not West Virginia. It’s not Oklahoma. It’s not Kansas.

I bring those up because those states go some 60-odd percent Republican. This is usually, about a 54-46 percent state. Lindsey Graham has never gotten more than 55 percent of the vote. Donald Trump only got 54 percent of the vote in South Carolina.

And so with a little TLC and investment and infrastructure in the state — and actually having a Democratic candidate with the resources to go around the state and talk to people and let them know that we’re fighting for them, that we’re going to fight for their interests, that we’re concerned about them.

We’re concerned about them, we’re not concerned about headlines, we’re not concerned about Fox News hits. We’re not concerned about flying on Air Force One or golfing with the president. We’re only concerned about you.

With that type of agenda, I think this state will surprise a lot of folks on Election Day.

Li Zhou

Can you talk more about what that TLC looks like?

Jaime Harrison

Some of it I started when I was chair of the party. For well over a decade, South Carolina and many states across the South did not get the investment they needed from the national party to keep their [political] infrastructure strong and going.

So what we are doing right now and what I tried to do as chair, is train a whole generation of people in the state — in the new waves of technology and how you communicate with voters, but also understanding how you organize campaigns.

I’ve been very fortunate to get that DSCC support, the Congressional Black Caucus support and we got it very early on, which is not typical. Sometimes, it has been hard for candidates, particularly candidates of color running statewide to get that type of support, but I’m very fortunate. I think there’s a new page that’s been turned.

Andrew [Gillum] and Stacey [Abrams] really helped to demonstrate that you can be bold, you can be a minority and we’re part of this “New South” that is rising, that is much more diverse, that is much more inclusive, and it’s about making sure that everybody — regardless of your background, your ethnicity, your race, your gender identity — you have the ability to live the American dream.

I am happy to say I am standing on their shoulders.

Li Zhou

Why was there such a resistance in the Democratic Party to promoting candidates of color and women, and any given candidate that was different from the traditional mold?

Jaime Harrison

To be honest, I don’t know. It was a big frustration for me as well. When Kendrick Meek ran for Senate in Florida, this shows you how things have changed. It’s a very different DSCC — he got very little support, almost no support.

When I decided I was going to run for the Senate, I went to Kendrick. And he said, ‘Just know — you probably aren’t going to get any support nationally.’ But it’s been totally different. 180 degree shift and change. And that’s a good thing. That means we’re progressing as a party and we understand that we need to put up candidates who reflect the values and the interests of the people who we want them to represent.

Li Zhou

In a New York Times interview, you talked about how there are Democrats and Republicans in South Carolina, along with a “squishy middle” of independent voters. What do you see as the best way to simultaneously reach the “squishy middle” of voters and turning out the Democratic base?

Jaime Harrison

My messaging in this race is not going to be the traditional Democrat vs. Republican or progressive vs. conservative. It’s really going to boil down to what is right vs. wrong. You can feel however you want to feel about the Affordable Care Act, but it is wrong in the state — as a result of not expanding Medicaid — that four of our rural hospitals have closed and there are a few more on the bubble.

That’s become these poor, rural communities are not getting the resources they would have gotten under Medicaid expansion, and as a result, because their margins are already so slim, they still have to care for the same amount of people, but they’re getting less money to do it.

Had they expanded Medicaid, they would have received more money, which would have made it more profitable for them to take care of these folks. But as a result of the Republicans saying “no” to Medicaid expansion, these hospitals are starting to close. In these communities, it’s not just black folks, it’s not just Democrats. These are Democrats and Republicans, black and white, very diverse communities.

It doesn’t matter if they voted for Donald Trump or if they voted for Hillary Clinton. It doesn’t matter if they vote for me or Lindsey Graham. But, if they have a heart attack, or if they have a stroke, or complications with diabetes, or if they’re like my wife, who just gave birth a few months ago, complications with her pregnancy, and it used to take them 10 or 15 minutes to get to the hospital, but now it takes them 35, 45 minutes, that’s a death sentence.

It really does not matter in terms of the politics. The question is: Is that right or is it wrong? And it’s wrong.

Ultimately, the question lies: What is our senator doing to address that? Are you doing something proactive to address that?

And the answer is “No.” Lindsey has done the polar opposite. He supported legislation, the Graham-Cassidy bill, which the AARP called a “monstrosity” of a health care bill.

Li Zhou

Are there other specific policy areas you’re trying to focus on?

Jaime Harrison

Student loans. That is a real crisis for the next generation of students. Personally, I had $160,000 in student loan debt, my wife had $90,000. So I know what it’s like to get a letter from Sallie Mae and say, ‘Hey, before you pay your rent, before you buy groceries, before you pay your car payment, you need to send me a thousand dollars.’

And there are kids graduating from school right now that have even more debt than I have. We have to figure out how to address the skyrocketing interest rates that these young folks have.

Li Zhou

What is your position on structural reforms, like eliminating the filibuster?

Jaime Harrison

At this point, I’m a “no” on that. My career was built in the House and in many ways, I believe in these institutions and the sanctity of these institutions, and the structures that were built because I think they are there to do good and make progress.

I’m a little hesitant to rush and start tinkering with the structures in the Senate and the House that have lasted over these generations, just for our short-term political gains. Because on that I know, being a student of politics, is the pendulum swings back and forth. One day you’re in the majority and the next day you’re not in the majority.

I understand that in the minority, we’ve been able to hold Mitch McConnell from destroying the Affordable Care Act because of the filibuster and the restrictions there. We have to think about what are the long-term repercussions of making these kinds of changes.

Li Zhou

The argument that’s been made is that we’re going to have a very tough time passing ambitious, progressive legislation with the way the Senate is set up now.

Jaime Harrison

We can find some common ground. Where I would like to see that energy happen is in gerrymandering reform. Part of the reason we have the problems we have politically is not so much because of the rules of the Senate or the rules of the House, it’s that we’re sending much more partisan people to Washington, DC, who see the word ‘compromise’ as a dirty word. And therefore, no progress gets done. Not even progressive or conservative progress, none.

I mean, when you can’t pass a roads bill ...

Li Zhou

As a former lobbyist, where do you stand on the party’s focus on increasing restrictions on lobbying and the folks who can become lobbyists after they’ve left office?

Jaime Harrison

When I worked in the House, we passed in 2006 one of the most comprehensive pieces of legislation on transparency and the lobbying profession. We put a ban in terms of how long you could go back and lobby in the chamber, whether you were staff or a member of Congress.

I think those types of reforms are definitely important because you want to have some separation. If you’re going to start a new career, then start a new career and have some separation from that.

I think it’s going to be hard — I’m putting my lawyer hat on — in terms of the First Amendment — to say, you as a person can’t do certain things. In terms of your First Amendment right, it’s kind of hard to restrict somebody. I don’t know if legally that will stand. I don’t see anything wrong with putting some cooling off period or extending the cooling off period between when somebody leaves Capitol Hill and starts lobbying or starts something else. I think that’s actually a good thing.

I mean, I had a cooling off period of over a year. And it gives you an opportunity to learn the issues and learn your clients and be able to make the case.

Li Zhou

What do you make of the positions people have taken about not taking lobbyist money for their campaigns?

Jaime Harrison

I think that people need to make a decision about they want to do for their elections. I have no qualms with that.

For us, we haven’t taken any corporate PAC money. A few of my friends who have lobbied have contributed, but it’s more because they’re my friend than because of anything else.

I think it’s up to the individuals. They just need to make a decision about what they want to do and what those perceptions are.

When I think of how much money I’ve raised, it’s not because I’m getting big PAC dollars from corporations. For us, our average contribution is about $25 a person. It is real people across the state in every county, who just want to see a change.