SOUTHERN STRATEGY
Mother Jones|March/April 2020
Jaime Harrison is running to unseat Lindsey Graham. Does he have the blueprint to flip the Senate?
KARA VOGHT

WITH A CHEERY DRAWL and an expression somewhere between exhausted and dead-eyed, Lindsey Graham spent a Sunday morning in November rattling off the greatest hits of GOP impeachment conspiracy theories before most Americans had finished their second cups of coffee. “When you find out who the whistleblower is, I’m confident you’re going to find out it’s somebody from the Deep State,” the South Carolina senator insisted during Fox News’ 10 a.m. block. Graham, a former Trump foe who has become the president’s chief defender in the Senate, then shifted into attacking Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence chair and now lead impeachment manager. “If you think Schiff is looking for the truth,” Graham snarled, “you shouldn’t be allowed to drive anywhere in America because that’s a ridiculous concept.”

The appearance capped off what could only be described as a banner week of bullshit from Graham— though, from his point of view, the Democrats were the ones spouting nonsense. “I think this is a bunch of BS,” Graham told reporters, saying he wouldn’t read witness testimonies released by Schiff’s committee. As for the House’s “sham” impeachment proceedings, which Graham would soon inherit: “I’ve written the whole process off.”

A day later, Jaime Harrison, Graham’s likely Democratic opponent this fall, entered the tiny, cinder block–walled dining hall at Clinton College, a small, Christian, a historically black school in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Wearing gray dress pants and a black V-neck sweater, his head shaved bare, Harrison stood before a row of square laminate bistro tables, where two dozen students, mostly from the school’s student government, drumline, and cheer team, sat waiting to hear him speak.

But when the 44-year-old Harrison did, he made scant mention of his opponent. Instead, as the smell of greasy breakfast hung in the air, Harrison asked the students about their passions and majors, encouraging them to find mentors who could help yoke the two together into a career. Harrison didn’t say much about national politics, alighting on it for only a few minutes as he connected the dots between voting, policy in Washington, and the student loan burdens many in the room would soon carry.

“Part of my thing is taking advantage of the opportunity,” Harrison tells me afterward in his baritone Southern lilt. “It’s not every day [that students meet] a younger politician who understands the same trials and tribulations that these kids are going through.”

At first blush, Harrison’s meet-them-where-they-are approach might look like a misstep when running against such a prominent—and lately notorious—DC figure. Over three terms in the Senate, Graham had cultivated a reputation as a staunch conservative who delivered bipartisan agreements on immigration and climate change—part of his identity as self-described “political wingman” to Arizona Sen. John McCain. (McCain had affectionately referred to his close ally as “Little Jerk.”)

But three years into the Trump presidency, Graham, who said during the 2016 election that he wished Republicans had kicked Trump out of the party, has become one of the president’s main sycophants. The reversal has earned him a particularly brutal impersonation from Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon, whose sweaty Graham explains in a recent sketch that “even my bodily fluids are trying to distance themselves from me.”

There’s a method to Graham’s about-face. Surfing political trends are part of it: As the Republican base gravitated toward Trump, Graham followed suit. But maybe it’s more about Graham’s desire to remain close to power; a Republican strategist recently likened him to a “pilot fish” in Rolling Stone—“a smaller fish that hovers about a larger predator, like a shark, living off of its detritus.” Put more generously: “It’s better to be at the table than on the table,” says Matt Moore, former chair of the South Carolina Republican Party.

But Graham is also contending with a South Carolina that’s tinging bluer. And Trump’s presidency has seen a spate of Democratic wins and near-misses in the unlikeliest corners of the South, gains that relied on a formula of increasingly blue cities, party-flipping suburbs, and turnout of black voters. Harrison, a longtime Democratic operative and current Democratic National Committee associate chair, advised Democrat Doug Jones’ successful Senate campaign in Alabama. Now it’s Harrison’s turn to put his own strategies to the test.

“I think [the Democratic spirit] is alive and well all across the South. The real question is getting people to believe that it’s possible here,” Harrison says. “People have a little sliver of hope, and now it’s important for me to take that sliver and turn it into a roaring flame.”

SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD Patricia Harrison gave birth to Jaime on February 5, 1976; his father was never around much, and fully disappeared when Jaime was 10. Raised mostly by his grandparents in their mobile home in Orangeburg, South Carolina, a majority-black city about 45 minutes outside of Columbia, Harrison spent part of his childhood on food stamps, and some of it homeless. “My grandparents didn’t have much, but they raised me right,” Harrison said in his video campaign announcement.

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