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Graham maintained SC's conservative strongholds to beat Harrison for Senate

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U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., celebrates his reelection to the Senate, over democratic challenger Jaime Harrison on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, at an election night watch party at Pastides Alumni Center at USC. John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — After voters headed to the polls in record numbers in South Carolina's U.S. Senate race, the picture that emerged looked largely unchanged from the past few election cycles, as Democrats struggled to chip into Republican advantages.

Far from the "New South" that Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison envisioned throughout his campaign, shifts were not dramatic in the state's biggest counties. In many smaller ones Republican incumbent Lindsey Graham actually gained ground from his party's 2016 results.

The Senate results tracked almost identically with the presidential contest. Harrison was only able to outperform his party's top-of-the-ticket nominee Joe Biden by around 19,000 votes, far less than what his campaign knew he needed to make the race more competitive.

Of the state's 14 most-populous counties, 12 remained majority Republican, the same as the 2018 governor's race and 2016 presidential race. While Harrison was able to reduce the margin by a few percentage points from President Donald Trump's 2016 victory in all of them except Horry, it was not nearly enough to cut down Graham's overall lead.

In 15 of the remaining 32 smaller counties, including Harrison's native Orangeburg, Graham actually outperformed Trump's 2016 results, continuing a trend around both the state and country in which major urban cities have become more Democratic while rural areas have become increasingly Republican.

State GOP Chairman Drew McKissick argued that's because longtime Democrats with conservative-leaning ideologies have grown more detached from the national Democratic Party, which gives Republicans an opportunity to pick them up in races that become largely about national politics, as the U.S. Senate race did.

"What we've seen over the last 20 years is a Democrat Party that has moved steadily to the left, making it harder for them to connect with rural conservative Democrats," McKissick said. "It's not their granddad's Democrat Party. It's not their dad's Democrat Party. It's not Jimmy Carter's party, Bill Clinton's party. It's not even Barack Obama's party."

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S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson countered that he believed Republicans were playing into racial tensions with advertising messages he said implied that "African Americans were going to overtake your communities."

"Our opponents were using a message of fear and coded language to move their voters, and I think that played very well in rural South Carolina," Robertson said.

Unlike in the neighboring Southern states of Georgia and North Carolina, the biggest blue cities in South Carolina do not take up a large enough share of the electorate to recover the ground Democrats are losing elsewhere around the state.

The longtime Democratic stronghold Richland County, with the state's capital city of Columbia, and the increasingly blue Charleston County, combine to make up less than 17 percent of the state.

That's not enough to erase Republican dominance in the Upstate counties of Greenville, Spartanburg, Anderson and Pickens, the conservative Charlotte suburbs in York, the coastal retiree communities in Horry, Beaufort and Berkeley, and historically conservative areas of the Midlands in Lexington and Aiken.

There were still signs of improvement for Democrats, particularly in the Upstate, as Harrison cut down GOP leads by 9 percentage points in Greenville and 10 percentage points in Spartanburg from four years earlier.

But those gains are still relative: Graham won Greenville, the state's most populous county, by 17 percentage points, and neighboring Spartanburg by 13 percentage points.

Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.

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