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Supreme Court fight shakes up SC's Senate race, could help Graham shore up GOP support

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COLUMBIA — The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg late last week, and the coveted vacancy it created on the nine-member bench, jolted political contests all over the country as the Nov. 3 elections approach, from the presidential level on down the ballot.

But few races may be more impacted than the bruising battle between U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and his well-funded Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison, who are locked in one of the most competitive and high-profile statewide races the Palmetto State has seen in many years.

For Graham and his campaign, the Supreme Court vacancy could not have arrived at a more opportune time, as Republican strategists believe — and even some Democrats quietly acknowledge — it will help the three-term incumbent consolidate support among conservative voters that have long been skeptical of him.

"Conservatives care about the court," said longtime S.C. GOP strategist Rob Godfrey. "It galvanizes support on both sides, but in South Carolina, conservatives outnumber liberals. So I think this is a development in this race that is a significant advantage for Sen. Graham as he closes down the stretch."

As chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, Graham will be at the forefront of the confirmation hearings that are sure to capture a divided nation's attention, and he has already made clear his intentions to push through President Donald Trump's nominee, conservative appellate Judge Amy Coney Barrett, as quickly as possible.

Those hearings will gift Graham with hours in the political spotlight during the most critical period of the race that could help him offset his financial disadvantage against Harrison, who has shattered South Carolina records by raising tens of millions of dollars for his campaign and dominated the television airwaves. 

Fundraising disclosures from the third quarter of 2020 are not due until next month, but in the first half of the year Harrison raised $21.2 million to Graham's $14.1 million. After a poll earlier this month found the two candidates tied, Harrison's campaign reported raising more than $2 million in just two days.

But while Harrison may have a paid media advantage, in the words of Godfrey, the hearings will allow Graham to "turn on an earned media blowtorch."

"Sen. Graham is about to have a chance to remind everyone in the state about the weight he carries when it comes to judicial appointments in the Senate," Godfrey said.

A series of polls in recent months have consistently shown Graham and Harrison neck-and-neck among South Carolina voters, driven in part by Graham's struggle to lock down all Republican-identifying voters — a residual effect of his pre-2017 reputation as a moderate compromiser on issues like immigration.

Some Republican voters have also not forgiven Graham for his votes to confirm President Barack Obama's two Supreme Court nominees, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

In a recent Morning Consult poll, for example, 93 percent of Republican voters in South Carolina said they were supporting Trump over Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, but only 84 percent said they were backing Graham over Harrison.

Voters on Graham's right were highly unlikely to cast a ballot for a Democrat like Harrison, but GOP strategists feared they may have sat out the Senate race after casting their ballot for Trump, or they might have considered writing someone else in or voting for a third-party candidate.

That Morning Consult poll was mostly conducted right before Ginsburg's death, however. Now, Graham may have exactly the type of game-changing moment he needed to placate any lingering concern among conservatives.

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Pressley Stutts, an ultra-conservative activist who leads the tea party in Greenville and typifies the kind of Republican voters who remain skeptical of Graham, said he expects the Supreme Court fight will help Graham lock down his right flank.

"It bolsters his cause," Stutts said. "You may still have a very small contingent of radical right who are still unsure, but everybody I'm talking to understands that the consequences at stake are just too high to not vote for Lindsey. I'll be holding my nose a little bit, but I'll be voting for Lindsey."

To be sure, Democrats are not backing down from the Supreme Court issue or trying to move the race away from being fought on this new political terrain, as they see their own potential opportunities to capitalize on it.

At least two different groups — an anti-Graham super PAC called "Lindsey Must Go" and a progressive advocacy group called "People for the American Way" — have gone up with TV ads in recent days highlighting Graham's reversal on whether the Senate should confirm a Supreme Court nominee so close to an election.

In 2016 and again in 2018, Graham promised that Republicans would not move to confirm a Trump nominee in the last year of his term in attempt to assuage outraged Democrats after Senate Republicans blocked Obama's last nominee Merrick Garland. He even encouraged people to "hold the tape."

"Nobody likes a hypocrite, even one who begins to support your position on an issue," said S.C. Democratic strategist Tyler Jones, a senior adviser for Lindsey Must Go PAC.

"If they are not genuine and authentic in that position, it doesn't matter," Jones add. "What Lindsey Graham has shown is he is just so willing to put his finger in the air and see where the political winds are blowing."

Democrats are also drawing attention to the role the Supreme Court will play in the future of American health care policy, an issue that the party had already been running on extensively.

If Trump's nominee is confirmed, it will raise the chances that the court overturns the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, risking the health insurance of millions of Americans in the midst of a pandemic, especially for those with preexisting conditions.

Democrats are betting that, even if Graham wins over more conservatives, he will simultaneously alienate more moderate voters and push fence-sitters over to Harrison's camp.

In a new internal poll from Harrison's campaign conducted in the days after Ginsburg's death, Harrison led Graham by 2 percentage points, 45 percent to 43 percent, with Constitution Party nominee Bill Bledsoe garnering 5 percent and 7 percent remaining undecided.

"This whole issue is a double-edged sword," Jones said. "The question is which side of the sword is sharper."

In an ordinary election cycle, the incumbent might be frustrated to be forced off the campaign trail in the final month of the race to handle official business in Washington.

But that problem has been all but eliminated in the age of the coronavirus, which was already limiting Graham's ability to campaign in person. Harrison has sworn off almost all in-person events and instead relies on virtual campaigning, preventing him from taking advantage on Graham's absence in the state.

Whether the candidates are on the campaign trail or not, however, Graham's central role in one of the most contentious moments of Trump's presidency is sure to bring even more attention to the race in these crucial final few weeks.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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