Lindsey Graham speaking.jpg (copy)

Sen. Lindsey Graham talks with the East Cooper Republican Club on Monday, March 18, 2019, in Mount Pleasant. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

COLUMBIA — As he begins his 2020 reelection campaign, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham opens with a sizable head start over any Democratic challenger and the strong backing of most South Carolina Republican primary voters. 

In a new Post and Courier-Change Research poll, 51 percent of respondents said they would vote for Graham if the election were held today compared to 36 percent for the Democratic candidate. Another 12 percent said they were not sure.

Among likely Republican voters, 51 percent said they will definitely vote for Graham in the primary and another 28 percent said they will probably vote for him, compared to just 19 percent who would probably or definitely vote for someone else.

The figures provide a starting baseline for the race as candidates begin raising money and building their campaigns.

Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston, said the poll results confirm much of what would be expected at the outset of Graham's reelection bid. 

"Lindsey Graham is still the favorite, this is a Republican state and he's the incumbent," Knotts said. "There's nothing in here that looks to me like there's no way it could be in play, but I do think it's going to be a challenge for any Democrat."

No Democrat has won a Senate race in South Carolina since 1998, when longtime U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings scored his sixth full term in office.

Two Democrats so far have filed to run for the party's nomination against Graham: former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison and economist Gloria Bromell Tinubu.

Harrison, a well-connected Democratic operative from Orangeburg who previously worked for House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, has already received endorsements from prominent Democrats both nationally and in his home state.

But he opens his first bid for elected office with a relatively blank slate among most S.C. voters: 58 percent said they have never heard of Harrison, and another 18 percent said they have a neutral opinion of him.

The head-to-head numbers between Graham and Harrison remained statistically consistent with those of Graham against a generic Democrat: 52 percent for Graham to 35 percent for Harrison, with 13 percent unsure.

That makes defining Harrison, if he becomes the Democratic nominee, one of the core missions for both campaigns.

"It means (Harrison) is going to need to run a smart campaign and raise the money to get his message out," Knotts said.

Once a vocal Trump critic during the 2016 presidential race, Graham has since become one of the president's most reliable allies in Congress — and even a regular partner on the golf course.

His moves towards Trump appear to be paying off with Republicans back home, helping him to shore up support among a previously skeptical right flank, but Trump remains more popular in the state.

Trump's favorability among voters in South Carolina stands at 56 percent overall to 42 percent unfavorable, compared to 45 percent favorable and 45 percent unfavorable for Graham.

Trump remains a highly polarizing figure, as the vast majority of S.C. voters say they either strongly support or strongly oppose him, with little in between.

Vice President Mike Pence helped Graham kick off his reelection campaign with a pair of rallies earlier this year, designed to demonstrate the Trump administration's support for the incumbent South Carolina senator.

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In 2014, when Graham was viewed as potentially more vulnerable to a challenge from the right, he nonetheless ended up easily dispensing six lesser-known GOP primary opponents. He went on to win the general election by about 20 percent.

Graham's returning campaign manager, Scott Farmer, said they won't comment on polls because "Sen. Graham always runs like he's behind."

"Our campaign is focused on raising money and building a grassroots army that will help us spread the senator's message of proven conservative leadership to all South Carolinians," Farmer said.

With 16 months to go, Harrison's campaign manager, Zack Carroll, said they are also focused on building out the campaign. But he argued Graham "should be scared by this poll" given the fact that Trump is more popular than him.

"South Carolinians don’t trust him because they know he only does what’s best for his political power — not South Carolina," Carroll said.

Graham has already amassed one of the largest campaign war chests in the U.S. Senate with $4.6 million on hand.

Harrison raised about $231,000 in the early weeks of exploring a bid, but he said he brought in another $270,000 in just the first 24 hours of launching his campaign last month after an interview on MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show." 

The online poll of 2,312 likely South Carolina voters was conducted from June 11-14 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percent.

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.