“Excuse me if I pinch myself a little bit,” said rookie Democratic candidate Jaime Harrison, pausing in his first debate with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham earlier this month. “I’m the son of a teen mom, I was raised by grandparents with a fourth-grade and an eighth-grade education. I went to Yale – the first in my family [to attend college] … and now I’m a candidate for the United States Senate.”
Mr. Harrison isn’t the only one pinching himself.
The 44-year-old African American has pulled even in some polls with Senator Graham, a GOP titan who has won his last five reelections by double-digits. Mr. Harrison is now in striking distance of what could be the Democrats’ biggest Senate upset in years. And he has not only outraised his opponent, but set a record for the biggest quarterly haul of any Senate candidate in history, pulling in $57 million from July to September. Much of that came from out of state in a race that has taken on national implications, as Republicans cling to a narrow three-seat majority in the Senate.
Like other Democrats who have sought to crack the GOP’s dominance in the South, Mr. Harrison pitches bringing hope to Black and white voters alike, promising to tackle challenges that cut across partisan lines. He has the added credibility of roots in a South Carolina town of 13,000, where he experienced such challenges firsthand, yet developed the vision to see potential where others might see only economic blight and persistent racial inequity.
“We are speaking to those values, that shared experience, and letting folks know that we see them, hear them, and feel the pain and hardships that they have,” Mr. Harrison told the Monitor. “What I want to do in the Senate is make sure that I can help build and revitalize those communities.”
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But Senator Graham argues that the money pouring into Mr. Harrison’s coffers has more to do with national calculations than a compelling biography. After all, the Republican senator is also an American success story – the son of pool hall owners, the first in his family to go to college, and now the powerful head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which could usher in a solid conservative majority on the Supreme Court.
“This is not about Mr. Harrison. This is about liberals hating my guts because I stood up for [Judge Brett] Kavanaugh when they tried to destroy his life. This is about me helping Donald Trump,” said Senator Graham in his first debate, portraying himself as a bulwark against a progressive takeover of American institutions. “This election is about taking me out because I stand in their way.”
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report changed its rating of the race to “toss-up” on Oct. 7. Part of that may be due to inroads Mr. Harrison has made with independent voters, among whom he holds a 15-point advantage, according to a Sept. 30 Quinnipiac poll. A Morning Consult poll released today, though, has Senator Graham ahead by 6 percentage points.
Mr. Harrison’s prodigious national fundraising is “the secret sauce that’s allowing him to break through where other Democrats have not,” says Republican strategist Matt Moore, who forged a cross-partisan friendship with Mr. Harrison when they served as state chairs of their respective parties from 2013 to 2017.
Regardless of whether he wins or loses, Mr. Harrison’s call to build a New South that is “bold, diverse, and inclusive,” embodied in his life and now his campaign, offers a way forward not only for his state, but also a country riven by the worst racial tensions in decades.
Hurdling obstacles, getting to prominence
At first glance, Orangeburg may seem the unlikeliest of places to produce Lindsey Graham’s first real Democratic challenger since he was elected to Congress a quarter century ago. Once home to cotton plantations, it experienced one of the bloodiest incidents of the civil rights era – the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, when state police opened fire on Black college students challenging a bowling alley whites-only policy, killing three and injuring 27 others.
Racism, segregation, and poverty persist. Mr. Harrison lived in a trailer as a kid, and recalls scrounging for change to buy gas and eating cereal with water because his grandparents couldn’t afford milk. Yet amid those circumstances, he showed promise from an early age. He first made the local news at age 5 when he won a drawing competition with a sketch of an old grist mill.
“From there, he took off,” says his mother, Patricia Stewart, in a phone interview. “He was just different. He would play, but wouldn’t play too much before he had to go back inside and read his books.” He loved comic books like Superman – and also deciphered his grandparents’ bills for them.
Mr. Harrison’s voracious reading helped earn him a Yale scholarship. There, he quickly developed a diverse set of friends, including freshman roommate David Drewes, a white Long Islander whom he ended up living with all four years. Though Mr. Harrison initially struggled academically – getting a C+ his first semester in one course – he persevered. He was elected president of his residential college and chair of the Yale Black Political Forum.
“It was just obvious to everyone who met him that he was destined for success,” says Mr. Drewes, now a partner at a New York law firm who has stayed in close touch.
“He doesn’t have the same sort of self-doubt that holds some people back,” he adds, attributing that to the love of Mr. Harrison’s grandmother, who hosted Mr. Drewes in Orangeburg one spring break. “He really just believes, ‘Well, I can make a difference – this is what I should do, and I’m going to go for it.’”
Mr. Harrison’s success in the face of significant obstacles – earning a law degree from Georgetown and rising to prominence as a young congressional staffer – earned him respect across the aisle.
“It’s an American story that I think the country needs right now,” says a GOP colleague who worked with him in Congress and asked not to be identified by name. “I’m a Republican telling you that about a Democratic candidate.”
A genuine uniter
When Kinney Zalesne took a few days away from her job as counsel for then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to volunteer as a writing tutor with College Summit, she wasn’t expecting it to be such a transformational experience that she would quit her job to work for the nonprofit instead.
But Jaime Harrison, who was overseeing the four-day workshop to help low-income students apply to college, created an “extraordinary” community among that diverse cross section of America, she says.
“He brings people together, he deeply respects people, and they feel it in a very genuine way. And it changes them,” says Ms. Zalesne, recalling how he cut through the tension with his “ma’ams” and his grandmother’s red velvet cake, which he loves to bake.
Mr. Harrison has notched a lot of firsts for African Americans – first to be executive director for the House Democratic caucus, floor director for a leader of the House (Democratic whip James Clyburn), and chair of South Carolina’s Democratic Party. But he has still been affected by racism.
In a recent op-ed , he said he’s felt racism his whole life, since listening to his grandmother’s stories of huddling with family while the Ku Klux Klan marched by. While other parents have to wrestle with telling their kids the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus aren’t real, he wrote, he wonders how to explain to his sons that America hasn’t yet lived up to the Declaration of Independence promise of “all men are created equal.” In Congress, often one of the only top staffers of color in crucial policy meetings, he felt the lack of diversity acutely.
With such personal experience and his deep belief in American institutions, Mr. Harrison could help the country navigate its most significant racial reckoning in decades, say those who know him well.
He creates an atmosphere in which people are less cognizant of barriers that might otherwise divide them, says Shana Payne, a close friend who has known Mr. Harrison since college. She calls his approach and character a “balm” that the country needs.
“We’re at a time in America where I feel like the curtains have been pulled back on a lot of who we are as a country,” says Derek Canty, a former colleague and co-founder of College Summit (now Peer Forward). “And we’re going to need leaders like Jaime to usher us through these times, to healthy times, to being one country, one state.”
Republicans may disagree; they criticized Mr. Harrison’s judgment in hiring two Black staffers who had tweeted offensive sentiments in the past. His campaign disavowed the sentiments, but retained the staffers.
Vision of a New South
South Carolina has one of the most complicated racial legacies in America, given its history (higher slave ownership per household than any other state except Mississippi). In the modern era, the state resisted integration, drawing out desegregation court battles for nearly 50 years.
Now, if Mr. Harrison wins, he’d join Republican Sen. Tim Scott in Washington – making South Carolina the first state whose U.S. senators are both Black.
Mr. Harrison says there’s far more cross-racial interaction in communities like Orangeburg than in urban areas, as evidenced on a playground here on a recent day.
“You look around and the world seems so divided,” says Markeisha Burgess, watching her kids play with a gaggle of white kids. “Yet here you walk around and it feels like we’re on the same team.”
Ms. Burgess’ friend Ashley Hart, who grew up listening to stories of the Orangeburg Massacre, says she has also come to see that her “white sisters” have more in common with her than she realized. “That, to me, holds a lot of promise,” says Ms. Hart.
“I think [Mr. Harrison] sees Orangeburg as some sort of future – where he wants to not just help African Americans, but poorer white people, too,” says Professor Stanley Harrold of South Carolina State University, a longtime Orangeburg resident whose wife taught Mr. Harrison in high school. “This is what Jaime is talking about when he talks about a New South, where voting rights are expanded and there is economic progress that benefits more people.”
A message informed by experience
Mr. Harrison, who in his last job as associate chair of the Democratic National Committee was tasked with developing a strategy for winning the South and rural areas, has proposed a Rural Hope Agenda that addresses issues like hospital closures and lack of broadband internet (38% of South Carolinians don’t have it). It proposes giving small businesses access to university expertise, and offers help for the state’s largely white farmers.
But Mr. Harrison’s journey toward a hoped-for victory, predicated in part on mobilizing the state’s 400,000 unregistered people of color, is arduous. JC Duncan, a Black 50-something resident, says he has never voted: “I take what God gives me.”
A white Orangeburg resident working on his yard, who did not give his name, says Mr. Harrison’s lobbying background is a deal-breaker. “Lindsey [Graham] has his issues, too, but I have only two words to say about Harrison: Podesta Group. Nuh-uh. No way.”
The Graham campaign has attacked Mr. Harrison’s connection with the now-defunct firm, claiming he “made millions of dollars lobbying for clients that foreclosed on hurricane victims, were fined for Medicaid fraud, and were suspended by the government for misleading their customers.” Mr. Harrison has countered that he needed high-paying work to pay down his $160,000 in student debt and a mortgage for his grandmother, whom he vowed to save from foreclosure after going through the humiliating experience with her as a kid. He also argues that his lobbying had a positive effect, including benefits to the port of Charleston and the University of South Carolina.
The way Mr. Harrison brings any political issue back to helping South Carolinians gives him traction beyond the Democratic base, including within a National Guard unit run by Lt. Col. Clay Middleton, a close friend.
“Some soldiers, I know their political persuasion, but some of them are saying, ‘Hey, I want to ask you a question, sir, about this Senate race. You know Jaime Harrison?’” says Colonel Middleton. “That interest from them is unbelievable. And that’s because of his message.”
Having a weekend picnic at Orangeburg’s Edisto Memorial Gardens, not far from the grist mill that propelled young Jaime into the local news, Dorin Stephens says he has no doubt Mr. Harrison will win. “And we can see where it all started, right here in Orangeburg,” says Mr. Stephens.
Mr. Moore, the former South Carolina GOP chair who also served as state director for Senator Scott, says the dramatic change South Carolina’s economy has undergone in the past 30 years, along with shifting demographics in the suburbs, has opened the way for candidates with compelling biographies.
But David Woodard, a retired political science professor who ran Clemson University’s polling for 20 years, is skeptical of the polls. When voters actually mark their ballots, he says, there’s an unusual loyalty to incumbents born of necessity: Southern states survived in Congress after the civil war by reelecting their representatives until they gained control of key committees.
“I just don’t understand how Lindsey Graham can lose this race,” says Mr. Woodard, a Republican consultant who helped him win his first congressional race in 1994. “It would be an upset of Titanic proportions.”