After the South Carolina presidential primary at the end of the month, Democratic investment in the state usually dries up.
But former state party chairman Jaime Harrison, who’s giving Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham his toughest challenge yet, is trying to change that this year by getting national organizations to invest in voter registration efforts to help reach some of the 400,000 South Carolinians of color who are eligible to vote but not registered.
With the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Harrison is taking on a three-term incumbent in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat statewide since 2006. Graham, who started out as a critic of President Donald Trump, has now become one of his biggest allies. That would seem to go over well in a state that Trump carried by 300,000 votes, or 14 points, in 2016.
Harrison is tired of hearing that.
“You can’t win if you can’t compete,” he told CQ Roll Call last week. “Republicans understand that. You look at states like Massachusetts, Maryland, Vermont. What do they have in common?… Blue states, Republican governors!”
“Whereas you got folks on the Democratic side, ‘Well, it’s a red state, and Donald Trump carried it by this and this.’ … I don’t care about that,” Harrison said.
Harrison’s team has sent a seven-page memo to the national party committees and outside groups laying out the argument that South Carolina is just as much a part of the changing South as are North Carolina and Georgia and should be included in the competitive playing field. Harrison has also reached out to individual presidential candidates to ask them to keep resources in the state beyond Feb. 29.
“We can prove our political net worth in the 2020 cycle,” said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based strategist and senior adviser to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“There’s so much energy from Jaime and the presidential preference primary,” he added. “It would be malpractice to let that fall by the wayside.”
On the financial front, at least, Harrison is competing. He raised $7.6 million in 2019. About one-fifth of his disclosed contributions in 2019 from individuals were from out of state.
Graham, though, has continued to raise money too. He’s narrowly outraised Harrison the past two quarters and has $10.3 million in the bank to Harrison’s $4.7 million. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Republican.
But Harrison’s profile, and the money he has to invest on the ground, should at least force Graham to dip into his coffers. The senator took 54 percent in his 2014 reelection, but the Libertarian nominee and a write-in candidate combined for nearly 7 percent of the vote. Harrison thinks he can capitalize on the “disaffected” Republican vote to cut into Graham’s margin.
By demographics alone, Harrison argues, South Carolina should be in play. African Americans make up 28 percent of registered voters — higher than in North Carolina, which national parties have treated as purple for more than a decade.
And just as in North Carolina, new voters are moving into the state from more liberal areas of the country, while white college-educated women in the suburbs are moving away from the GOP. Democrat Joe Cunningham flipped a longtime Republican seat on South Carolina’s coast in 2018.
“What we haven’t seen in South Carolina is the investment that we’ve seen in other states,” Harrison pollster Cornell Belcher said.
Harrison’s first priority, though, is engaging and expanding the electorate — and that’s where he wants help from the national party.
It’s a similar strategy to the one Stacey Abrams followed in Georgia, where she narrowly lost a 2018 race for governor.
“Georgia didn’t become competitive because people changed their minds,” Belcher said, arguing that Abrams worked to mobilize new and sporadic voters.
“I’m not going to try to persuade my way through a traditional red state and chase this mythical swing voter,” he added.
Instead, Harrison’s path to victory calls for registering a quarter of those 400,000 unregistered voters of color in the state, and he wants the national party to get in on the action.
“For well over a decade, the South has just been ignored. After Obama won, we got drunk with, ‘Oh, that’s all.’ Like we arrived and forgot that, no, it’s not just about the White House,” said Harrison, a Democratic National Committee official who ran for chairman in 2017.
“We stopped with the 50-state strategy, where there were resources put into these state parties. And when that stopped, you saw the deterioration of the infrastructure in many of these communities," he added.
In many of the special elections since Trump was elected, the national party has been wary of making overt investments in Southern races for fear of nationalizing those races. Some observers blame the party for going too far in 2017 in Georgia’s 6th District, where Jon Ossoff was tied to the national Democratic Party and lost an affluent, suburban community that was used to voting for Republicans. (Democrats flipped the seat a year later.)
But in the special election in South Carolina’s 5th District, which took place on the same day in June 2017, the national party largely stayed away, other than funneling about $300,000 through the state party to experiment with minority outreach. The Democratic nominee lost by just 3 points, a smaller margin than Ossoff’s, in a much redder district.
The lesson there was about persuasion versus turnout. The voters in Georgia’s 6th had to be persuaded to vote Democratic; the minority base in South Carolina’s 5th just needed to be persuaded to turn out.
National investment, Seawright said, is a balance. If the party can help build the voter base and then turn people out, the candidate can focus on convincing them that he deserves their votes.
A personal story
The GOP has been pushing Trump’s presidency as a boon for African Americans, an argument he made in his State of the Union address last month. And yet, more than 80 percent of African Americans believe Trump is racist, according to a Washington Post/Ipsos poll from early January.
But disliking Trump hasn’t been enough to get more African Americans out to vote in a place like South Carolina.
“If you don’t go into these African American communities and make a case for why they need to come out and vote, then they won’t. They will not. They have many other things that they believe are much more important,” Harrison said. “But I can go into these communities in a way that … nobody has ever been."
Before Harrison went to Yale and Georgetown Law School and worked on the Hill as a top aide to House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, he grew up poor in Orangeburg, South Carolina. He may have been a D.C. lobbyist, but he says he’s still connected to the way he grew up. His family members have been murdered and imprisoned. They’ve also been harassed by the police.
“I know what that is like, and I can talk about it in a way that some of these other candidates who’ve run in South Carolina in the past can’t,” Harrison said.