But Harrison, 44, is also campaigning for something more than hope: He’s challenging Lindsey Graham, 65, for his seat in the US Senate. A prominent Republican, Graham has served as a US senator from South Carolina since 2003, having handily won three successive races.
This time, though, Graham’s reelection isn’t a foregone conclusion.
Harrison isn’t just a Democrat who’s holding his own in what’s long been a reliably red state. He’s a Black Democrat — or a “double minority,” as Jahleel Johnson, a 19-year-old Black student at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, told CNN.
In this light, the hope and inspiration that Harrison often talks about on the campaign trail aren’t vague buzzwords. They describe the profound enthusiasm his candidacy evokes among the Palmetto State’s Black voters.
‘He really is the hometown boy’
When observers say that Harrison has the potential to change the face of South Carolina politics, in some ways, they mean that literally.
It’s not that the state hasn’t seen a Black US senator before. Tim Scott assumed office in 2013, becoming the first Black US senator from South Carolina and the first Black American since Reconstruction to represent a Southern state in Congress’s upper chamber.
Harrison would offer a different kind of visibility, a different kind of enfranchisement, to Black voters.
“It’s tough for a Black American to win a statewide seat here, but we’re at a critical moment when it might be possible,” said Tina Herbert, 46, an attorney in Columbia. “So I’m very excited about Harrison’s campaign. His story resonates with me. He really is the hometown boy.”
On a scholarship, Harrison studied political science at Yale University. After graduating in 1998, he taught geography at his former high school, then worked at a nonprofit that helps low-income students go to college. He earned his law degree from Georgetown University in 2004. He also worked in South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn’s office and as a lobbyist for the now-defunct Podesta Group.
For four years beginning in 2013, Harrison was the chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party — the first Black American to have the position. Since 2017, he’s been an associate chair of the Democratic National Committee.
“I know at least two people, including myself, who are considering running for statewide office because of what Harrison has done,” Marlon Kimpson, 51, a South Carolina state senator and another rising star of the Democratic Party, told CNN. “So many people are rooting for him because they see themselves in him.”
But it’s not just the impressive arc of Harrison’s life that strikes a chord with Black voters, in particular. It’s how he uses his experiences to extend a political vision that includes them.
“I’m excited about Harrison’s campaign not only because he’s eminently qualified to be a US senator but also because he pays attention to issues that are crucial to me,” said Davida Mathis, 64, an attorney in Greenville. “He thinks that health care should be affordable, that Medicaid should be expanded. His positions are the same as mine.”
Mathis mentioned that these issues are all the more necessary to tackle amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Covid-19 poses a distinct threat to the South, where both younger and older adults are at higher risk of serious illness from the virus.
Is the tide turning?
Even a few years ago, both Democrats and Republicans in South Carolina viewed Graham as broadly agreeable. There were political differences, of course. But the senator appeared anchored by convictions that his opposite-party constituents could understand, and he seemed willing to buck his party if he had to.
But many voters’ image of Graham changed once he became one of Trump’s most pious defenders, even as the President’s popularity in the state declined.
Wilkerson also criticized Graham for seeking to “block the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) because he (Graham) feels that it provides unemployment benefits that are too high for the working people who lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 crisis.”
Walter Whetsell, a spokesperson for the pro-Graham Security Is Strength PAC, told CNN that the unique challenge for Graham isn’t his rival’s race but Harrison’s campaign chest, which has benefited significantly from out-of-state funds.
Whetsell said that while South Carolina has “overwhelmingly” elected a Black senator before, no one has ever gone up against a candidate raising so much money.
“Nobody’s ever had a race like this before,” Whetsell said.
He explained that in South Carolina, statewide campaigns traditionally buy eight to 10 weeks of television advertising at a cost between two and three million dollars. “(Harrison is) spending that damn near every two or three days,” Whetsell said.
Harrison’s campaign has spent or reserved more than $45 million in ads, compared with about $18 million from Graham’s, according to the ad tracking company Kantar/CMAG.
The Black voters interviewed for this story articulated a hope that, as Graham’s support atrophies, Harrison will continue to make inroads with voters of all political stripes, at least partly because they sincerely believe that he’d be good for everyone.
“Trump used to be a television personality, but when it comes to things like Social Security and Medicaid and helping people who are down and out because of Covid-19, these issues hit close to home. People don’t want to be entertained,” Mathis said. “Graham’s support of Trump makes him seem unconcerned with people at home. I don’t know if Graham has lost his mind, has lost his way or is drunk with power, but none of that serves South Carolinians.”
She continued: “What people want is help. And that’s what Harrison is offering. Even people with Confederate flags on their trailers need his help.”
The Harrison team spoke in similarly expansive terms.
“Right now, we’re building what Jaime calls ‘the New South’ — that is bold, diverse and inclusive,” campaign spokesperson Guy King said. “Jaime’s story is one that resonates with all South Carolinians, and he is running to ensure the people of the Palmetto State have the opportunity to achieve the American Dream just as he did.”
It remains an open question whether Harrison — propelled by his appeal, anger at Graham and the New South — can secure enough support to win on Election Day. To triumph, he’ll need to get young, independent and Black voters to the polls.
But already, it’s undeniable that his candidacy has made a difference in the Palmetto State.
“Harrison’s campaign illustrates that Democrats can’t just give up on South Carolina,” said Danielle Vinson, a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University (which, full disclosure, is my alma mater) in Greenville. “Even in the short term, his presence in the race will help some congressional candidates. It helps (South Carolina Rep.) Joe Cunningham, for example, because now he’s not the only one trying to turn out Democratic voters in the state.”
Johnson, the student, echoed Vinson’s sunny outlook, speaking specifically about the racial dimension of Harrison’s closely-watched bid.
“I aspire to run for political office in South Carolina one day. At first, I was hesitant because I thought: Can a Black politician who’s a Democrat really make it? Harrison has told me that I can,” Johnson said. “I hope that he wins. But even if he doesn’t, he’s inspired me to fight, regardless of the barriers I might face.”
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