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Democrat Jaime Harrison is challenging Lindsey Graham for the Senate in 2020

His candidacy is a long shot in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in 20 years.

Jaime Harrison, chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, speaks at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on the final night of the Democratic National Convention, July 28, 2016.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call,Inc./Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Jaime Harrison, a former chair of South Carolina’s Democratic Party, is officially challenging Sen. Lindsey Graham in 2020 — and he thinks he can win by swaying some Republicans in the process.

Harrison announced his candidacy on Wednesday, taking aim at one of President Trump’s staunchest defenders on the Hill and outlining his plans to flip a Senate seat in a place that hasn’t elected a Democrat statewide since 2006. As Harrison told the New York Times’s Astead Herndon, he thinks he could build a coalition of Democratic voters and crossover Republicans in order to ultimately secure a victory.

“When your health care is threatened or you’re crushed under the weight of student loans, politics doesn’t matter — and character counts,” Harrison said as part of his launch, which included hefty criticism of the incumbent. In a campaign video, he lambasted Graham for sharply changing his stance on Trump. Clips show Graham calling the president a “race-baiting, xenophobic and religious bigot” in 2016, and then turning around and saying the exact opposite after Trump won the election.

“What we are seeing with Lindsey Graham right now, it makes you question his character,” Harrison said during an appearance on Rachel Maddow’s show Tuesday night. “I used to think this was a guy who was a statesman, a guy who could stand above the fray and help solve the issues ... but he’s a chameleon that’s changed his colors.”

Harrison’s campaign, while potentially buoyed by the anti-Trump energy in the Democratic base and among independents, is widely seen as a long shot. The Republican-leaning state went for Trump by 14 points in 2016, and Graham won by a similar margin over the Democratic candidate in 2014.

Who is Jaime Harrison?

Harrison was the first black chair of the state’s Democratic Party and currently serves as an associate chair for the Democratic National Committee. He had previously run for the role of DNC chair in 2017 and has also worked a lobbyist for the Podesta Group, where his clients included Bank of America and Wells Fargo.

As South Carolina party chair, Harrison was known for starting the Clyburn Fellowship, a program dedicated to building the state’s Democratic bench. Several members of that program have since won regional elected offices, including seats in the South Carolina legislature.

Harrison is originally from Orangeburg, South Carolina, a town in the southern part of the state where he grew up in poverty, according to his campaign website. He went on to attend Yale University and Georgetown Law School and said he opted to become a lobbyist after working as a staffer for Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn in order to support his family.

“You don’t have very many options when you graduate from law school with $160,000 of student loan debt and want to take care of your grandma,” Harrison told HuffPost. “That is how I take care of my family ... I don’t come from a lot of money.”

Harrison would be the latest in a string of Democrats, including former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, attempting to flip a long-held Republican seat to Democrats, as demographics in his state change and anti-Trump sentiment mobilizes voters in the middle.

While O’Rourke and Abrams made gains in traditionally red areas, however, they lost their statewide races last year. Gloria Bromell Tinubu, a Democrat who had also previously run for lieutenant governor in 2018, is running in the South Carolina Senate primary in 2020 as well.

South Carolina hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in two decades — but the state has seen some political shifts in recent years

South Carolina last elected a Democrat to the Senate in 1998. And though Graham faces some criticism for his abrupt turnaround on Trump, both this and the president’s approval ratings remain relatively high in the state, coming in at 52 percent and 53 percent, respectively.

Harrison argues he’s got a better handle than Graham on the issues that South Carolina voters are focused on, such as the closures of rural hospitals and problems with regional drinking water. He also notes that the state’s shifting demographics could be a force that works in Democrats’ favor.

“South Carolina is changing, reverse migration is taking place. A lot of the black folks who used to be in Ohio and Chicago and all those places, they’re coming back home to the South,” Harrison told the Times. “You see that in Atlanta, and Charleston, and Charlotte, and all across the South. You see the explosion of the Latino population.”

Some of these changes were evident during the 2018 midterms, when Democrats made gains in urban strongholds like Charleston. Their pickups, limited as they may be, reflected this emerging trend: Democrat Joe Cunningham was able to flip a longtime Republican House seat held by Mark Sanford, and Democrats picked up a state Senate seat as well.

“We are on the verge of a renaissance in the South, a new South,” Harrison said during his Maddow interview. “We’re winning in South Carolina. It’s all about investing and fighting.”

Harrison also emphasized that independent voters, and even some Republicans, could be crucial crossovers that give a boost to the campaign.

“About 45 percent of people in the state are Republicans; about 42 percent, I’d say, are Democrats. And then there’s this squishy middle, who will probably identify as politically independent but vote Republican six or seven times out of ten,” he told the Times.

Polling suggests that the overwhelming majority of South Carolina Republicans are pleased with both Trump and Graham, though there is a narrow contingent that disapproves. Among independents, there’s similarly a fraction who could be open to a Democratic candidate. According to a 2016 survey by Open Primaries, a group that advocates for all voters to have access to party primaries, about 40 percent of independents favored Trump during the presidential election, while another 40 percent favored Democratic candidates.

If Harrison can find a way to tap into these two contingents and rally an energized Democratic base, he could give Graham a serious fight.

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