COLUMBIA — In the closing weeks of South Carolina's competitive U.S. Senate race, Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison has escalated efforts to elevate the profile of a third-party candidate in an apparent last-minute bid to peel off conservative voters dissatisfied with Republican incumbent Lindsey Graham.
First in digital ads and now in television spots that have begun hitting South Carolina airwaves, Harrison's ads alert voters to the fact that "right-wing Constitution Party candidate" Bill Bledsoe is still on the ballot and warns them that he is "too conservative for South Carolina."
The ad's narrator says Bledsoe "opposes all abortions, "supported Trump from day one," and "believes any gun control law infringes on the Second Amendment" — positions that would likely appeal to a significant number of conservative voters in South Carolina.
Unmentioned in Harrison's ads: Bledsoe endorsed Graham earlier this month and encouraged his supporters to do the same, citing Graham's support of President Donald Trump and conservative judicial nominees.
Bledsoe has not submitted official documentation withdrawing from the race, according to S.C. Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire, but at this point it would be too late to remove his name from the ballot. He appears at the top of the ballot due to a rotational system between the parties each election cycle.
Jessica Taylor, the Senate races analyst at the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election forecaster that recently shifted their rating of the South Carolina race to a "toss-up," said the ads could chip away at Graham's share of the vote, lowering the bar that Harrison would need to clear to win.
Polls have consistently shown that President Donald Trump is outperforming Graham among Republican voters in South Carolina, suggesting that some Trump supporters in the state are still unsure about voting for the senator who went from being one of Trump's most vocal critics to one of his closest allies.
Voters on Graham's right flank are unlikely to cast their ballots for a Democrat like Harrison, but they could be persuaded to pick a candidate who is more conservative than Graham if they do not realize or do not care that Bledsoe has stopped running.
"If you were able to sow enough doubt about this conversion that Graham had from 2016 until now about Trump, you could then have conservatives who are angling to pick Bledsoe," Taylor said. "When you have $57 million, this is not a bad way to spend that because most people don't know Bledsoe's name."
During a campaign stop Monday in Simpsonville, Graham noted that Bledsoe has endorsed him and said Bledsoe "is pissed that (Harrison's campaign) is doing this because he understands the difference between Jaime Harrison and Lindsey Graham on the things that matter to him and constitutional conservatives."
"This is an unprecedented effort for a Democrat to campaign for the constitutional conservative when the constitutional conservative is supporting the Republican," Graham said. "It tells a lot about the state of the race."
Graham's campaign spokesman T.W. Arrighi also described Harrison's ad as a "sign of desperation" and an attempt to "brazenly deceive and mislead voters."
Asked about the ads after casting his own ballot Monday in Columbia, Harrison said he does not think there is anything deceptive about the ads because Bledsoe is still on the ballot.
"I'm old enough to remember that third-party candidates can influence what happens on the ballot, and so therefore, we're educating people about all the folks who are on the ballot," Harrison said. "It's just as simple as that."
Third-party candidates have cost Republicans in U.S. Senate races before.
In 2012, for example, Montana Libertarian candidate Dan Cox garnered nearly 30,000 votes, which was more than the slim margin of victory for Democrat Jon Tester over Republican Denny Rehberg.
A pro-Tester group paid for a flurry of ads in that race promoting Cox, unbeknownst to the Libertarian candidate himself, according to a report from the Ravalli Republic.
And in 2002, South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson beat Republican John Thune by just a few hundred votes, less than the more than 3,000 votes that went for Libertarian candidate Kurt Evans.
Like Bledsoe, Evans had dropped out of the race and endorsed Thune a few weeks before the election, but his name remained on the ballot and Thune later blamed him for costing him the election.
Both parties have also occasionally played in the opposing party's primaries by seeking to promote the candidate they think would be most easy to defeat in the general election.
Perhaps most famously, Democratic former U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri ran ads criticizing Republican challenger Todd Akin during his 2012 GOP primary for being "too conservative" — a tactic very similar to Harrison's that she later acknowledged was intentionally designed to help Akin garner more Republican votes.
Robert Cahaly, a Republican strategist and pollster who is not involved in the South Carolina race, said he immediately thought Harrison's ads about Bledsoe could have an impact on the contest when he saw them on TV during a baseball game Sunday night.
"It's one of the cleverest things I've seen in a long time," Cahaly said. "I never thought it was possible that Jaime Harrison could get 50 percent of the vote, but if there's a scenario where Jaime Harrison could get 47 percent of the vote and win, that's a different ballgame."
Most voters who cast their ballot for third-party candidates do not expect that candidate to win but simply want to register a protest vote, Taylor said.
"So the question is are conservatives going to send a protest vote that they still don't trust Lindsey Graham even if that in effect could hand Jaime Harrison the race?" Taylor said. "Perhaps."