Dispatch: Will Trump’s most loyal ally be punished? Democrats donate millions to unseat Lindsey Graham and flip the Senate

Josie Ensor
·8 min read
Sen. Lindsey Graham stands onstage with President Donald Trump during a Feb. 28 campaign rally in North Charleston, South Carolina - AP
Sen. Lindsey Graham stands onstage with President Donald Trump during a Feb. 28 campaign rally in North Charleston, South Carolina - AP

For those lining up to vote at the old library in downtown Charleston, the upcoming election is as much a referendum on Donald Trump's most loyal lieutenant as it is on the president himself.

Mr Trump may be top of the ticket but Lindsey Graham, Republican grandee and staunch Trump ally, is key to the party's struggle to keep control of the Senate.

The 65-year-old three-term incumbent senator is facing the toughest fight of his political life from Jaime Harrison, a rising Democrat star who has managed to break all fundraising records and galvanise anti-Trump anger across the country.

“Graham and Trump are two sides of the same coin,” said 38-year-old designer Angela Morrison, thumping a red, white and blue “I voted” sticker on her chest outside the Charleston County Public Library. “A lot of people don’t like what they’ve seen, but a lot of South Carolinians are also scared of change.”

A recent Quinnipiac poll had Mr Graham and Mr Harrison, 44, the first black chairman of the state Democratic Party and a former school teacher, in an unexpected tie in the ruby red state.

Democratic candidate for Senate Jaime Harrison waves to supporters during a socially distanced drive-in rally held at The Bend in North Charleston - AFP
Democratic candidate for Senate Jaime Harrison waves to supporters during a socially distanced drive-in rally held at The Bend in North Charleston - AFP

Such a tight race gives the Democrats a chance to capture a seat that has been held by the Republicans since the 1960s and potentially flip the Senate in the process, which would severely hamper Mr Trump’s ability to get legislation passed should he be reelected.

“Lindsey Graham is a man who’s been in Washington for 25 years, a man who’s the golf buddy of the president of the United States,” Mr Harrison told a crowd of honking supporters at a socially distanced car rally in North Charleston this week. “A round-headed boy from Orangeburg, South Carolina, born to a teen mom, is out-raising him.” 

A self-described son of a single parent who rose from a mobile home to college at Yale, Mr Harrison’s aspirational pitch has appealed to many in the Palmetto State, particularly here in the less prosperous south.

He has promised affordable healthcare and high-speed internet to suburbs long forgotten about. Mr Harrison knows the race will likely hinge on black and rural voters, who make up a large slice of the electorate but failed to come out in 2016. 

A young supporter of Democratic candidate for Senate Jaime Harrison looks on from her vehicle as he speaks during a socially distanced drive-in rally - AFP
A young supporter of Democratic candidate for Senate Jaime Harrison looks on from her vehicle as he speaks during a socially distanced drive-in rally - AFP

“What’s great about America is that someone who grew up 10 miles behind the starting line can still win,” said the father-of-two, wiggling his hips to James Brown’s Get On Up in the sticky October heat.

His popularity has earned him comparisons to Democrat posterboy Beto O'Rourke, the charismatic former congressman who threatened to unseat Ted Cruz in Texas in the 2018 midterms.

Mr Graham, meanwhile, has positioned himself as the tried-and-tested candidate, an old-school Southern conservative who can best represent the state’s values. 

But he has hitched his wagon to Mr Trump, who is in many ways his antithesis. Mr Graham, who serves as Chair of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, has defended the president at every turn and was one of his most aggressive defenders during impeachment hearings last year, earning him the nickname “Lindsey the Lackey.”

The decorated former Air Force pilot was not always a fan of the New York real estate developer, however, calling him a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot” and a “kook” who was unfit to be president before he won the Republican nomination.

Mr Harrison has used his rival's about-turn to his advantage, joking during an appearance on the popular late-night Jimmy Kimmel Show that "there are more flip flops with Lindsey Graham than there are on Myrtle Beach right now.” His campaign has even begun selling $25 pairs of flip-flops printed with the senator’s face.

It has not gone down too well with moderates in the south, some of whom see Mr Trump as a bombast and a liability who is pulling the GOP away from its founding principles. 

Some 49 per cent of voters surveyed in a recent Siena College poll said they do not think Mr Graham is honest and trustworthy, compared to 41 per cent who said they thought he is.

Benjamin Edwards, a one-time Republican who used to go door-to-door canvassing for Mr Graham, now counts himself among the 49 per cent.

“There are a lot of people who can’t stand what Graham has become, they feel a sense of betrayal,” the law professor told The Telegraph. “He was once a man of integrity, but his silence with each Trump outrage has been deafening,” said Mr Edwards, who has donated to Mr Harrison’s campaign this time around.

But some among the party’s disgruntled have rallied behind Mr Graham as he shepherds Judge Amy Coney Barrett, the president’s new Supreme Court pick, through the confirmation process.

Supreme Court Nominee Barrett Appears Before Senate Judiciary Committee, Washington, - Shutterstock
Supreme Court Nominee Barrett Appears Before Senate Judiciary Committee, Washington, - Shutterstock

In Mrs Barrett they have someone who could protect pro-life, pro-gun legislation far beyond any presidential term. The Bible Belt state is still one of the most socially conservative and religiously minded in the country.

“If it wasn’t for Lindsey Graham, the president would have been impeached and we’d have a court full of liberals,” said retiree Joan Breyers, 70, after casting her early vote at the library. “I can’t imagine Charlestonians kicking him out. People fall in love with young, fresh faces, but when it comes down to it we stick with our trusted elder statesmen.”

Rob Godfrey, a longtime adviser to former South Carolina Republican governor Nikki Haley, believes the hearing - taking place weeks before the election - has given Mr Graham a desperately needed boost.

“He’s essentially playing a starring role, making himself as important a political candidate as there is off the presidential ballot,” he told the Telegraph.

But the prospect of a Trump second term and a Supreme Court packed with conservatives has energised the other side of the aisle too.

Members of a group called Flags of the South hold a protest in front of The Confederate Defenders of Charleston statue at The Battery Charleston, South Carolina - AFP
Members of a group called Flags of the South hold a protest in front of The Confederate Defenders of Charleston statue at The Battery Charleston, South Carolina - AFP

Mr Harrison made headlines last week for managing to raise more money than any candidate for the Senate in US history. His campaign reports that the total of $86m (£66m) made so far has come from nearly one million individual donors giving an average of $37. 

The Democrats have been particularly savvy at tapping into what has been dubbed “fundraging”. Mr Graham has become a lightning rod for the anger of progressives across America.

Cathleen Nicholls, a nurse from Myrtle Beach, said she donates to Mr Harrison whenever Mr Graham says something that irritates her. “It’s getting expensive,” she jokes.

During Mrs Barrett’s questioning last week an exasperated Mr Graham, who has broken his own fundraising record with $58m, directly appealed for donations - in violation of Senate rules. "I'd like to know where the hell some of it's coming from,” he told the Judiciary Committee of the Democrats’ haul. 

There is no guarantee the donations will equate to votes for Mr Harrison, however. As Mr Godfrey points out, a good chunk of the money flooding into South Carolina, which is home to little over five million people, has come from out of state.

He believes their efforts could end up being a boondoggle for the Democrats.

Democratic US senate candidate Jaime Harrison, with his son, William, after casting his vote - Getty
Democratic US senate candidate Jaime Harrison, with his son, William, after casting his vote - Getty

“It’s silly money,” he said. “They’ve spent more on two weeks of TV ads than Nikki Haley did on two election cycles running for governor. I don’t think there’s any more TV advertising, digital marketing or phone calls they can possibly put out. After a while it all just becomes white noise.”

The race continues to be far more competitive than the Republicans would like so close to the election. Mr Graham pulled out just in front of Mr Harrison in one poll released over the weekend and just behind in another. 

It remains to be seen if Mr Graham will ultimately be hurt or helped by his closeness to the president.

“No other political contest in 2020 offers quite the same referendum on the ugliness of Mr Trump’s presidency,” the New York Times wrote in a recent op-ed. 

Indeed, no victory would rebut Mr Trump’s vision as emphatically as Mr Harrison’s would, and none would solidify it quite like Mr Graham’s.