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3 things Lindsey Graham, Jaime Harrison need to do to win SC's competitive Senate race

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Republican incumbent Lindsey Graham (left) and Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison. File

COLUMBIA — South Carolina's closely watched U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Lindsey Graham and Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison is shaping up to be one of the most competitive statewide contests the Palmetto State has seen in years.

Here are three things each candidate needs to do to come out on top on Election Day.

Jaime Harrison

1. Drive up Black voter turnout

Harrison has put a significant emphasis on African American voters throughout his campaign.

He's spent millions advertising on Black radio stations, campaigned at historically Black colleges and barbershops alongside popular hip-hop artists, criticized Graham for what he viewed as racially insensitive comments, hired a diverse campaign staff and highlighted his own background as the son of a poor single mother from Orangeburg.

Depending on the turnout, non-white voters comprise between a quarter to a third of South Carolina's electorate. Harrison will need it to be closer to the latter, while simultaneously chipping in to Graham's lead among white voters, in order to stage an upset.

2. Boost third-party candidate Bill Bledsoe

In the final month of the race, Harrison and Democratic groups supporting him have made a concerted effort to elevate the profile of Constitution Party candidate Bill Bledsoe in a bid to split would-be Republican voters and reduce Graham's total haul.

Even though Bledsoe suspended his campaign and endorsed Graham, he did so too late to remove his name from the ballot, and all of his votes will be counted in the final total. Harrison's run extensive ads calling Bledsoe "too conservative," and other groups have sent out mailers to Republican voters explicitly advocating for Bledsoe.

If Harrison's gambit pays off by cleaving dissatisfied conservative voters on Graham's right flank away from him, it could lower the bar he needs to clear to beat Graham, which strategists believe is critical in a state where it is exceedingly difficult for a Democratic candidate to get above 50 percent statewide.

3. Narrow margins in Upstate

In the 2018 governor's race, Democratic nominee James Smith managed to cut the margin of South Carolina's most populous county, Greenville, by 7 percentage points from the presidential election two years prior.

But it remained a core Republican stronghold and a source of a huge number of GOP votes. Trump won Greenville County by 25 percentage points, while Republican Henry McMaster won it by 18 percentage points in that governor's race. 

If Harrison can cut down Graham's margins in the incumbent's conservative home base of the Upstate even further, that would make it much more plausible for him to make up the ground needed elsewhere around the state.

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Lindsey Graham

1. Consolidate Trump base

Even the most partisan of Democrats acknowledge their party's presidential nominee Joe Biden has little to no chance of defeating Republican incumbent Donald Trump in South Carolina, a state that Trump won by 14 percentage points in 2016.

So if Graham can simply persuade all of those Trump voters to also cast their ballots for him by emphasizing the close alliance the two of them have developed over the past few years, that should be enough to put him over the top.

The problem Graham has faced is that polls have shown at least some Trump supporters are unconvinced by Graham's conversion into team player after he vigorously criticized Trump during the 2016 campaign, famously calling the then-candidate a "race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot."

Some conservatives also have not forgiven Graham for his work with Democrats on immigration reform and his votes for two of President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominees.

He is hoping his efforts to confirm more than 200 of Trump's judicial nominees, including most recently Amy Coney Barett to the Supreme Court, will bring those voters home and prevent them from either voting for Bledsoe, writing someone else in or not voting in the Senate race at all after they cast their ballots for Trump.

2. Boost turnout in Horry

While the western Upstate is historically considered South Carolina's bastion of conservatism, Horry County out east has become increasingly red over the past few election cycles and is also the fastest growing county in the state.

The county has proven particularly favorable to Trump: It was one of his strongest counties in South Carolina's 2016 GOP primary, and he won it by a whopping 38 percentage points in the general election.

If Graham can come close to those kind of percentages with a higher number of overall voters, it would provide him with a substantial leg up.

3. Narrow margins in Midlands, Lowcountry

Richland County, home to the state's capital city of Columbia, has long been South Carolina's biggest source of Democratic votes. But the Lowcountry has also become a critical battleground for Democrats in recent years after they flipped the 1st Congressional District in 2018.

Graham will be trying to keep Charleston County, which went for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by 8 percentage points in 2016 and Smith by 15 percentage points in 2018, somewhat competitive, while outperforming Harrison in the more conservative surrounding counties of Beaufort, Dorchester and Colleton.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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