Jaime Harrison and Lindsey Graham have been battling it out over the airwaves for months. On Saturday night, as the surprisingly competitive South Carolina Senate race has reached a fever pitch, they finally met face-to-face on the debate stage.
Harrison accused Graham of flip flopping on his word and breaking the trust of his voters. Graham, the three-term GOP incumbent, warned South Carolinians they wouldn’t recognize their country if Democrats took control in Washington.
Those two arguments took center stage in a fiery debate held one month before Election Day. The two disagreed on Covid-19 response, the upcoming Supreme Court confirmation fight Graham will head, and police reform, among a host of other issues — including the flood of TV ads unleashed on the state, thanks to Harrison’s prodigious fundraising and the late involvement of super PACs from both parties in a race that is unexpectedly competitive.
That South Carolina is being actively contested this close to the election is an alarm bell for Republicans about the state of their majority, as they are forced to defend a deep-red state that was not expected to be up for grabs while Democrats fight to flip the chamber.
Graham leaned heavily on his role as Judiciary Committee chairman in the upcoming confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court. He promised the process would move forward, even as two members of the Judiciary Committee who met with Barrett this week tested positive for Covid-19, forcing the Senate to alter its schedule for the next two weeks.
“The one thing I want people to know is that the virus is serious, but we have to move on as a nation,” Graham said early in the debate. “When a military member gets infected, you don’t shut down the whole unit. We’re going to have a hearing for Amy Barrett, the nominee to the Supreme Court. It will be done safely — but I’ve got a job to do, and I’m pressing on.”
Harrison criticized Graham for pressing ahead given the infections — he stood with a plexiglass divider beside his lectern to separate from Graham, who tested negative for the virus earlier this week. Harrison said he did not blame Trump for the inception of the virus but blamed the administration and Congress for an inadequate response to it.
He also questioned Graham’s word to voters in the state, pointing out that the Republican senator had previously said he would not move forward on a Supreme Court nomination in the final year of Trump’s term but is doing so now.
“I think the greatest heresy that you can do as a public servant is to betray the trust of the people that you took an oath to serve. And that’s what you’ve done,” Harrison said. “Just be a man of it and stand up and say, ‘You know what, I changed my mind. I’m going to do something else.’ But don’t go back and blame it on somebody else for a flip flop that you’re making yourself.”
Graham responded that Barrett would be confirmed because Trump and Republican senators have a constitutional right to move forward.
The debate was held at Allen University in Columbia, S.C., and was produced by WIS-TV. It aired on affiliates in a number of other South Carolina markets as well: Greenville, Myrtle Beach, Charleston, Savannah, Ga., and Augusta, Ga. It also aired nationally on C-SPAN.
The two also clashed repeatedly over a host of other issues, including schools reopening during the pandemic, health care coverage and police brutality and the question of systemic racism in policing. Graham continually aimed to tie Harrison to the most liberal elements of the Democratic Party, but also said he had the “political scars” to prove his bipartisanship, referencing his poor reputation among conservatives in past elections where he faced primary challenges.
Harrison pushed back on the attacks linking him to more liberal elements in his party, saying clearly that he did not support defunding police and accused Graham of misleading viewers. Harrison, however, didn’t discuss his party or potential control of the chamber, but kept his focus in the debate squarely on Graham’s record in Washington and argued he had not delivered for the state.
Graham, during a question about negative ads that had been run in the race, took a chance to bring up Harrison’s historically strong fundraising. Total TV ad spending has already reached $40 million — and while Harrison’s campaign has not said how much he’s raised since the midpoint of this year, Graham suggested Saturday his opponent could end up bringing in roughly $100 million for the cycle.
“Where the hell is all this money coming from…?” Graham said. “They hate me. This is not about Mr. Harrison. This is about liberals hating my guts because I stood up for [now-Supreme Court Justice Brett] Kavanaugh when they tried to destroy his life. This is about me helping Donald Trump.”
The financial gap may only keep on growing. A spokesperson for Harrison’s campaign said it raised at least $340,000 from the time the debate began, through an hour after it concluded.
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