Pence Graham

Vice President Mike Pence campaigned for U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham's 2020 reelection bid in Myrtle Beach on March 30, 2019. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

MYRTLE BEACH — President Donald Trump dispatched his second-in-command to South Carolina on Saturday to lend a helping hand as one of his closest congressional allies kicked off his 2020 reelection campaign.

Vice President Mike Pence told a boisterous sold-out crowd of about 700, many wearing red "Make America Great Again" hats, in the Grand Strand that "South Carolina and America need Lindsey Graham back in the United States Senate for six more years.”

“I have watched him stand in solidarity with President Donald Trump and our administration for a strong national defense, for less taxes, less regulation and conservative appointments to the courts,” Pence said, pointing to a "Team Graham" sign in the audience. “We’re on Team Graham, too, I’m here to tell you.”

Graham, who has transformed from one of Trump's fiercest critics to one of his most reliable supporters over the past couple of years, made clear that the close relationship he's formed with the president will be a central component of his argument for reelection.

"Number 1," Graham said of his purpose for running, "I'm going to be a good ally to this president and be his partner. Four more years."

Despite his public support for Trump, he joked that the president’s unpredictability can make every day in his administration feel like Christmas.

“There’s something under the tree with Trump, you just don’t know what it is,” Graham said. “Some days it’s that shotgun you’ve been dreaming for, right? Some days it’s the red sweater and you say, ‘hmm.’ But what you know is that every day is going to be a new day in America, and it’s about time we had a new day in America.”

The earlier-than-usual campaign relaunch for Graham, who is pursuing a fourth term in the Senate, comes as he appears likely to face a more formidable Democratic foil than in past cycles.

Jaime Harrison, a former S.C. Democratic Party chairman, is exploring a run against Graham and has been raising his own campaign funds off of Pence's visit, telling supporters that it shows Graham is worried about his odds of reelection in the historically red state.

At a news conference Friday outside the Statehouse in Columbia, Harrison the state's senior senator should spend less time placating the president and more time confronting the state's most pressing problems, including tainted water, rural hospital closures and the damaging impact of Trump's tariffs on businesses.

"Sen. Graham has bent over backwards to prove to the world that he values his friendship with the President above everything else," Harrison said. "He has actively put the needs of the people of South Carolina in harm’s way in order to preserve that friendship."

The Myrtle Beach stop also featured speeches from Gov. Henry McMaster, a longtime friend of Graham’s and one of the first national politicians to endorse Trump, and U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, R-Myrtle Beach, who said the relationship between South Carolina and Washington "has never been stronger."

Pence and Graham later headed across the state for a rally in Greenville.

Graham supporters repeatedly cited the senator's vigorous defense of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing last year as the moment that cemented their approval of him. 

Jean Webb, a retired nurse from Murrells Inlet, said she "used to be iffy" about Graham.

"He’d say some things I really agree with and then say something that would really tick me off," said Webb, 73. "But when he stated his opinion about Kavanaugh, that was the first time in my lifetime I felt that I saw a politician speak the truth and didn’t care whether people liked it or not. That's when I became a Lindsey Graham fan."

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Graham, for his part, said the Kavanaugh hearing showed why he "cannot afford to lose."

"The people on the other side are going absolutely crazy," he said.

Others attendees said voters should take into consideration the prized position Graham has landed as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Graham vowed to use that perch to confirm "more conservative judges" in the years ahead.

"The state of South Carolina would be crazy to vote him out," said Tim Roper, 61, who moved to Myrtle Beach from Kentucky a few years ago. "Like (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, it takes years to get to those positions. Everybody knows that. So once you get one of your representatives there, you need to stand behind them."

The vice-presidential visit served as an unmistakeable reward for Graham's lock-step support for Trump.

But if anyone thought it would be the only reelection assistance Trump would offer Graham, the senator assured the crowd there would be more to come.

"You'll see the president later on in the year," he said.

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.

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