NORTH CHARLESTON — After a busy week of confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham bounded down the steps of his campaign bus Friday afternoon as a few dozen supporters chanted, "Fill the seat."
Graham turned to the crowd gathered outside the North Charleston Coliseum, where South Carolina voters were heading in to cast in-person absentee ballots for one of the most fiercely fought statewide elections the Palmetto State has seen in generations.
"We will," he said with a grin.
A day later and just a few miles away, Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison spoke to scores of honking cars at a drive-in rally for one of his first in-person campaign events in months, slamming Graham for not doing more to prevent the closure of four rural hospitals in South Carolina in recent years.
"My friends, we can do better, we can be better, but we've got to get better leadership in order to get there," Harrison said.
As South Carolina's increasingly high-profile U.S. Senate race enters its crucial final weeks, Graham and Harrison are emphasizing different issues as they try to secure the small but critical pool of undecided voters that could decide which of the two of them represents the state for the next six years.
Graham is hoping that his efforts to shepherd Barrett through the confirmation process will remind conservative voters in South Carolina of the policy consequences of the election and mitigate concerns among some voters on either side of him that he is either too pro-Trump or not pro-Trump enough.
"This is not a personality contest," Graham told his supporters in North Charleston. "This is about the future of your country and our state. Trump can be a handful, but he's got the big stuff right: 250 conservative judges in the last four years, and we're not done yet."
When Harrison weighs in on the Supreme Court battle, to the extent that he has at all, he consistently looks to bring it back to his primary focuses of his campaign: health care and character.
Harrison has refrained from announcing whether he would vote for or against Barrett's confirmation, and in an interview last week with The Post and Courier, he would not commit to doing so in advance of the election.
But Harrison did argue that Graham's underlying motive for pushing Barrett was to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, which is set to face a challenge before the Supreme Court soon.
And more broadly, he has continued to lambaste Graham for focusing on the Supreme Court over the coronavirus pandemic and for breaking the promise he made in 2016 and again in 2018 that Republicans would not vote to confirm a nominee shortly before an election.
"When you lie to your constituents, that is the greatest travesty that a public servant can ever do," Harrison said. "And let me make this promise to each and every one of you: I will never lie to you. I will always tell you the truth. That doesn't mean we will always agree, but that means you will know where I stand every single time."
The money race
Amid all the Supreme Court drama, last week also gave a long-awaited peek behind the curtain at the finances of the two campaigns in what has become by far the most expensive race in South Carolina history and among the most well-funded Senate races in the country.
Federal disclosures filed Thursday revealed that Harrison shattered the national fundraising record for a three-month period by raising $57 million from July to September, more than double Graham's $28 million over the same period, which was a record in itself for Senate Republicans.
But the filings also showed that both candidates had been pushing money out at roughly the same rapid clip they were taking it in, with Harrison spending $60 million for the quarter while Graham spent $28.7 million.
Graham's need for cash landed him in hot water when he solicited campaign donations in an on-camera interview outside the Supreme Court hearing room, a move that congressional legal experts said violated Senate ethics rules.
As a result of Harrison's extensive early spending, Graham entered October with almost $7 million more left in his campaign account.
That’s in part because the theory of the race from Harrison’s campaign was that he needed to narrow the gap by Labor Day in order to maintain national attention on the race and keep the money flowing.
Harrison beat the Labor Day goal by several weeks, as the first neck-and-neck public polls in the race began emerging as early as August. That led to the anticipated rise in interest and additional funds pouring into his campaign.
The early spending was particularly important this year due to the spike in early voting amid the coronavirus pandemic. Based on current trends, the SC Election Commission expects more than a million voters will cast absentee ballots before Election Day, which would double the record set in 2016.
That means the candidates can’t wait until the closing few days to swing voters to their side. The voting is already well underway.
While Harrison's massive haul drew much of the attention, another revealing money story has been playing out behind the scenes at television stations around the state: Republicans are now poised to outspend Democrats on the South Carolina airwaves over the last few weeks.
Graham and Republican groups have combined to reserve more than $25 million worth of TV airtime over the closing weeks of the race, while Harrison and Democratic groups have reserved around $19 million, according to media tracking firm Advertising Analytics.
That's largely due to a huge, late influx of cash from the Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC aligned with GOP leadership. After initially touting plans to spend $10 million on the race, the group's total ad buys have now risen to $16.6 million as they work to save Graham from a stunning upset defeat.
Health care clash
Graham took a pair of somewhat conflicting approaches to the healthcare issue during the hearings.
During his first round of questioning Tuesday, he railed against Obamacare and touted his own proposal to block grant money to the states and give them authority to set up their own health insurance systems.
But in his second round on Wednesday, he delved deeper into the legal issue at play in the Supreme Court case, a concept known as "severability" — whether an entire law should be invalidated if one element of it is found unconstitutional.
In a back-and-forth with Barrett about severability, Graham implied that the case against the Affordable Care Act might not actually succeed in nullifying the entire law.
When all was said and done, Graham had effectively made the case in successive days that Obamacare is bad policy — a play to his conservative base — but that those who like it shouldn’t fret about the odds of it going away anytime soon — an effort to soothe concerns of more moderate voters.
Asked after his campaign rally Friday whether voters should expect the Supreme Court to strike down the health care law, Graham did not answer directly but continued to explain why he thinks it should be replaced with his proposal.
"My belief is the best hope for a good outcome in South Carolina on health care is to get the money back home, out of Washington, in the hands of people you can hold accountable," Graham said.
Harrison said ending Obamacare "would unleash chaos throughout our healthcare system during a pandemic," especially by threatening South Carolinians with preexisting conditions, who independent experts have warned could see a spike in their premiums if the law goes away.
As if the race was not contentious enough already, a pair of comments Graham made recently have also stirred racial tensions in a state with a sordid history. on the topic.
First, during a TV interview last week, Graham said, "If you’re a young African American, an immigrant, you can go anywhere in the state, you just need to be conservative not liberal."
The full context of his answer made clear that he was referring to succeeding in South Carolina politics, but an abbreviated clip went viral on social media, with some critics suggesting he meant minorities would not be safe in the state if they are not conservative.
Then, during the Supreme Court hearings, Graham asked Barrett whether there was any chance America could go back to "the good old days of segregation."
Graham quickly clarified to reporters that his comment was made with "dripping sarcasm," but Harrison seized nonetheless, saying Graham should not joke about "a period of immense pain" for Black South Carolinians.
In an apparent bid to soften his image, Graham's campaign has recently gone on air with personal testimonials from two of South Carolina's most popular politicians, both of whom are minorities: U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, and Nikki Haley, the first Indian-American woman elected governor.
"We have the blessing of Lindsey Graham, who happens to be a senator, but more importantly, he's just a really good South Carolinian," Scott says in his ad.
Debate in flux
The Supreme Court confirmation process has also thrown a wrench into the race in a different way: jeopardizing the possibility of any more debates.
After initially agreeing to face Harrison on Wednesday in a debate hosted by S.C. ETV and The Post and Courier, Graham's campaign informed organizers that the date would no longer work due to his Senate work schedule. Graham's committee is scheduled to vote on Barrett's nomination on Oct. 22.
But efforts to arrange a new date have yet to yield an agreement between the two campaigns.
In an interview this week with Gray TV, Graham said he didn't know if he would be able to appear at any more debates.
"I hope so," Graham said. "But I am focused like a laser right now as chairman of the Judiciary committee on making sure that Judge Barrett gets through the Senate, out of the committee and on to the court. So I'm very much focused on my day job."
Harrison campaign spokesman Guy King said Harrison "is ready and willing to debate to ensure the people of South Carolina understand where both candidates stand on the issues that matter most."