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Graham, Harrison spar over coronavirus handling, judges in SC's first US Senate debate

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Election 2020 South Carolina Senate

Jaime Harrison (left) and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (right) face off in the South Carolina U.S. Senate debate at Allen University in Columbia on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020. Joshua Boucher/The State via AP

COLUMBIA — U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham cast his Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison as a pawn for a “radical liberal agenda,” while Harrison chided the Republican incumbent for not doing enough to help struggling South Carolinians amid the coronavirus pandemic during the state’s first U.S. Senate debate Saturday night.

In a contentious but orderly hour-long debate, both Graham and Harrison emphasized their humble upbringings in South Carolina, Harrison as the son of a single mother from Orangeburg and Graham being raised in his family’s bar in Central, as proof of their understanding of everyday people.

But in almost every other way, the two candidates diverged.

Graham warned that a Democratic-controlled Congress and White House would lead to a “nightmare scenario” of “the most liberal agenda in the history of American politics,” including higher taxes, single-payer healthcare, and overbearing environmental regulations that could damage the economy.

“This is a big choice election between me and Mr. Harrison,” Graham said. “Capitalism vs. socialism. Conservative judges vs. liberal judges. Law and order vs. chaos. You know where I stand.”

Harrison responded by noting that he does not support some of his party’s most progressive policy proposals and accused Graham of seeking to distract from his own record, especially on the coronavirus, which has now killed more than 3,000 South Carolinians and more than 200,000 Americans.

“The Senate failed to act, the White House failed to act, the governors failed to act,” Harrison said, calling for more testing availability, mask mandates and financial aid for the thousands of unemployed South Carolinians. “We need leaders who are going to step up and act.”

The debate, hosted by local Columbia TV news station WIS at the historically black Allen University, came amid a swirl of dramatic national news in recent days, as President Donald Trump was checked into the hospital the day before after contracting the coronavirus.

A growing number of infections among top Republican officials and lawmakers added some complications to the debate itself. U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday, just a day after he had attended a Judiciary Committee hearing chaired by Graham.

That potential exposure prompted Harrison’s campaign manager, Zack Carroll, to write in a series of tweets shortly before the debate began that Graham should be quarantining for 14 days, according to guidelines from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The debate went forward with the candidates’ podiums 13 feet apart, but Harrison’s campaign put up a plexiglass barrier on the side of his podium facing Graham as an added measure of safety. Graham did not put up any added protection around his podium, and his campaign spokesman declined to comment on Harrison’s move.

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Graham urged voters to look beyond the pandemic and repeatedly sought to steer the conversation back to judicial appointments. As Senate Judiciary committee chairman, Graham is currently pushing to confirm Trump’s latest Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, before the Nov. 3 election.

“This virus is going to pass, and what kind of country are you going to have if liberal Democrats win the House, the Senate and take over the White House?” Graham said. “They’re going to pack the Supreme Court with liberals. That’s what’s at stake in this election. Don’t be fooled.”

While Harrison mostly focused on other issues like healthcare, he did confront Graham over Graham’s promise in 2016 and 2018 not to confirm a Trump nominee in the last year of his term when the voters could weigh in during the election.

“My grandfather always taught me, he said, ‘Jaime, a man is only as good as his word,’ “ Harrison said. “Well, senator, how good is your word when you made a promise to the American people, and even more, you made a promise to the folks in South Carolina that you wouldn’t be doing what you’re doing right now?”

Graham responded by noting that he voted for two of Democratic President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, while Harrison opposed both of Trump’s earlier nominees. Harrison brought it back to the pandemic again, questioning why Graham was not displaying a similar sense of urgency on that issue.

The race between Graham and Harrison has become by far the most expensive in South Carolina political history, with tens of millions of dollars pouring in, especially to Harrison’s campaign, helping the candidates run constant ads on television and digital outlets.

In just the single hour of Saturday night’s debate, Harrison’s campaign raised $125,000, according to his spokesman. Graham said on stage Saturday night that the heavy level of funding against him was because the left hates his support of Trump.

Polls over the last few months have consistently shown it to be a neck-and-neck race, rare for a state that has not seen a Democrat win a U.S. Senate race since the late Fritz Hollings’ last reelection bid in 1998.

The candidates will have two more debates.

The next one will be on Oct. 9, rescheduled from Oct. 12 because Graham plans to host a confirmation hearing for Barrett that day. The final debate is currently scheduled for Oct. 21, hosted by SCETV and The Post and Courier, though that is also subject to change with the Senate schedule.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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