COLUMBIA — Jaime Harrison, the Democratic candidate challenging U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, will speak at a virtual campaign event next week alongside former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who formed a gun safety advocacy group after she was shot at a 2011 constituent meeting.
The upcoming event signals a new front in Harrison's extensive attacks on Graham's record, hitting the Republican incumbent for failing to push through universal background checks and other legislation that advocates say would mitigate the risks of gun violence.
But political experts in South Carolina say it could also be a politically risky move in such a historically gun-friendly state and caution that Harrison will need to tread carefully by focusing on widely accepted proposals to avoid alienating parts of the electorate.
Even Harrison broadly called for "curbing gun violence" in his campaign kickoff speech last year, S.C. GOP chairman Drew McKissick promptly described him as a member of "the party of gun confiscation" — a sign of Republicans' eagerness to exploit the issue.
"It can be a slippery slope for a Democrat and it has been for several decades," said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston. "Gun violence has certainly been a problem in South Carolina so I understand why he's doing it, but he just has to be a little bit careful."
Harrison campaign spokesman Guy King said the issue is personal to Harrison, who was close friends with the late state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine victims at the 2015 Emanuel AME church shooting in Charleston.
King criticized Graham, who leads the powerful Senate judiciary committee, for not bringing up a bill that passed the U.S. House last year to close the so-called "Charleston loophole." The bill would lengthen the amount of time a gun purchase can be delayed when the FBI has not completed a background check from three days to up to 20 days.
"South Carolina deserves so much better," King said. "As senator, Jaime will work to advance sensible, consensus reforms that will improve and expand background checks to make sure firearms don’t end up in the wrong hands."
Graham campaign spokesman T.W. Arrighi said the senator is "a strong supporter of the Second Amendment for law-abiding citizens" but noted he has voiced some support for stricter gun legislation, like the so-called "red flag" laws that would allow courts to block people deemed dangerous from obtaining guns.
Arrighi also pointed out that Harrison has expressed support for a gun registry, which Arrighi called a "radical idea."
"While this idea may be popular with the California liberals funding his campaign, it’s not going to sell with South Carolina voters," Arrighi said.
Robin Lloyd, the managing director of Giffords PAC, said Graham's votes against background check legislation in the past and his lack of gun bill votes in the judiciary committee were part of why the group decided to jump in to the South Carolina race.
"Putting forth commentary indicating that you're willing to work on something but then having no action, at this point, given the scope of our gun violence crisis, is too little too late," Lloyd said.
Giffords PAC commissioned a poll of South Carolina voters that found almost 80 percent support background checks on all gun sales and 56 percent would be more likely to support a candidate who supports background checks.
But it also found that many voters are either unsure of Graham's positions on universal background checks or believe he supports them, prompting officials at Giffords PAC to believe that educating more voters about his record could peel away some support in what multiple polls have now shown is a competitive race.
Most strategists and polls indicate that the top issues animating voters on both sides of the aisle largely remain the economy and healthcare, both of which have taken on even more prominence amid the coronavirus pandemic. Still, Lloyd argued gun violence is not disconnected from those top-of-mind concerns.
"If the pandemic has made one thing abundantly clear, it's that you cannot have a healthy, thriving economy and culture if you don't have a healthy and safe population, and that also applies to gun violence," Lloyd said.
The event with Harrison and Giffords will be on Tuesday at 7 p.m. In addition to Harrison and Giffords, the panel also includes Giffords PAC executive director Peter Ambler and Sydney Clinton, a student activist from North Charleston.