Trump Clemson Football (copy)

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., left, listens as President Donald Trump, right, speaks during a reception for the Clemson Tigers in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 14, 2019. Graham is up for reelection in 2020.  File/AP Photo/Susan Walsh

COLUMBIA — A few weeks before the midterm elections, the South Carolina Democratic Party sent out a fundraising email to supporters asking for help to take down a top Republican candidate.

The email was not about Gov. Henry McMaster, an incumbent who was in the heat of electoral battle against Democratic challenger James Smith. It wasn't about Katie Arrington, who would go on to become the first Republican to lose the state's 1st Congressional District in four decades.

In fact, the October email wasn't about any of the hundreds of Republicans on the ballot that November.

"Lindsey Graham needs to go," the email read. "We’re working right now to beat him in two years."

While the "First in the South" 2020 presidential primary has garnered much of the attention in recent weeks, South Carolina Democrats have also been using the early days of 2019 — and even the final days of 2018 — to gear up for an aggressive challenge against the state's senior senator next year.

The race promises to potentially become a well-funded fight between a renowned incumbent and a combative upstart in a historically red state — not dissimilar, in some ways, to the battle between Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Democrat Beto O'Rourke in Texas last year.

Like Cruz, Graham's national reputation has recently made him both a conservative darling and a valuable foil for Democrats looking to energize their own base, attracting new attention to a state where no Democrat has won a statewide race in more than a decade.

As President Donald Trump seeks a second term next year, Graham's friendly relationship with the Republican president and new role as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman could make him a top target for liberal grassroots activists, even if top party officials focus their resources elsewhere.

But just the fact that Graham's most serious challenge now appears to stem from the left rather than the right marks a pronounced shift in the senator's political fortunes.

In 2014, when Graham's reputation for working cooperatively with Democrats reached a high point, he drew six GOP challengers who combined to take 46 percent of the primary vote.

At the outset of the Trump administration, many South Carolina Republicans expected Graham could elicit a similar array of conservative opponents for his next re-election bid due to his vociferous criticism of the Republican nominee during the 2016 campaign. 

Now, though, discussions of a credible Republican challenger to Graham next year have fallen mostly quiet after he transformed into one of Trump's closest allies in Washington — punctuated most dramatically by his outraged defense of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during confirmation hearings last year. 

"The only rumblings I've heard is the sound of any potential challengers mentioned six months ago running for the hills," said Walter Whetsell, a veteran Republican consultant in South Carolina.

Democrats circling

While conservatives have mostly laid off of Graham, Democrats see a rare opportunity. Jaime Harrison, a former S.C. Democratic Party chairman, has openly stoked speculation for months that he will take on Graham next year.

A handful of other Democrats also are rumored to be considering a run, but Harrison — a Yale graduate who is now a top official at the Democratic National Committee — has the type of network to tap into that few other Democrats in the state could match.

Harrison is expected to reach a final decision in the coming weeks, but he has already offered some revealing hints.

In a recent interview on the Bill Press radio show, Harrison said that a prospective candidate would need to finish technical preparations before launching a campaign, like building a campaign website. The homepage of Harrison's current website, which he used during his bid for DNC chairman, features an auspicious message: "New Website Coming Soon!"

Despite Democratic optimism, Graham enters the race with many formidable advantages.

The incumbent is starting with more than $3.2 million in the bank, according to newly filed federal disclosures, giving him the biggest campaign war chest of any politician in the state. His vaunted political apparatus, which has won him every election he's run in since his first bid for Congress in 1994, is just beginning to warm back up.

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“Our campaign is focused on sharing the senator's conservative message with South Carolinians, raising money, and building the grassroots army we'll need to fight the onslaught of attacks from liberal activists and Hollywood donors," said Scott Farmer, Graham's returning campaign manager.

S.C. Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson argued that Graham has "gotten lucky in every campaign since 1994" because of weak opposition and a concerted strategy of hiring all the state's top consultants to minimize any potential threats.

"Lindsey Graham has been the master at convincing moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats that he's a centrist, when in reality we've seen over the last several months and since the passing of Sen. (John) McCain that he's really not," Robertson said, a preview of the party's messaging for the next 21 months.

'False confidence'

Republicans, to put it lightly, are not worried.

S.C. GOP chairman Drew McKissick laughed off what he called "false confidence" from the state's minority party, and he welcomed the possibility of national Democrats "throwing all their money into states where they can't win." 

"I don't doubt that their radical base has a problem with Lindsey," McKissick said. "But their problem is a math problem because their radical base is mighty small. Bless their hearts, they're a liberal party in a conservative state."

Nonpartisan prognosticators like the Cook Political Report rank the seat as "Solid Republican," an indication that most experts do not expect the race to be competitive. Much-anticipated races in states like Maine, Colorado and North Carolina are expected to draw most of the national attention.

But the long odds have not stopped S.C. Democrats from hoping.

Dinging Graham for "chumming it up with the president" and focusing his ire most recently on the arrest of former Trump aide Roger Stone, Harrison said it is time for the state to start a "new chapter" in Washington.

"He's been there for a while now," Harrison said, "and it's probably good to bring some new blood and new ideas, someone who understands the struggles that people are having these days and is focused on addressing them." 

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.