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Unprecedented ad blitz spearheaded by Democrats coming to SC in US Senate race

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Democrat Jaime Harrison is challenging U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. File

COLUMBIA — If you think you are already being inundated with political ads for South Carolina's U.S. Senate race, just wait until you see the bombardment that's in store for the final month.

The high-profile contest between Republican incumbent Lindsey Graham and Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison has already shattered Palmetto State records, with at least $72 million spent so far on advertising by both the candidates and outside groups, according to media monitoring firm Advertising Analytics.

That spending is spearheaded by Harrison, who has drastically outpaced Graham, shelling out almost $50 million since the June primaries compared to less than $20 million by Graham. Harrison also has considerably more spending planned for October than Graham, about $13 million to $3 million.

With more cash continuing to flow into both Harrison and Graham's campaign coffers and additional outside groups jumping into the fray, enticed by public polls that show a neck-and-neck race between the candidates, the total cost is likely to climb even higher in the lead-up to the Nov. 3 election.

In the latest poll of likely South Carolina voters out Wednesday from Quinnipiac University, Graham and Harrison were tied at 48 percentage points each, which was unchanged from the same pollster's last survey two weeks ago.

Results like that, along with Graham's role leading the upcoming confirmation hearings for President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee as Senate Judiciary chairman, will only draw more resources to the state, prompting Republican media consultant Kurt Pickhardt to predict South Carolina's first ever nine-figure race.

"South Carolina politics has seen a lot of things, but a $100 million Senate race isn't one of them," said Pickhardt, the vice president of Smart Media Group, a GOP media-buying firm based in D.C. "That's a very real possibility this cycle."

The most expensive races in South Carolina history before this one were the 2016 presidential primaries, which drew $42 million in ad spending for all the candidates in both parties combined, according to Advertising Analytics — less than half of what is expected in this Senate race.

Other top statewide contests, like the 2014 and 2018 governor's races, drew less than $7 million each for the general elections.

This unprecedented level of funding means South Carolina voters can expect to see a far higher proportion of political ads in the last month of the race than is typical in a state has been viewed as a reliable Republican stronghold for the last few decades.

Over the past month, political advertising has risen from about 15 percent of all advertising in South Carolina to closer to 30 percent, Pickhardt said. In the home stretch of the race, Pickhardt predicted that ratio will likely climb to roughly 50 percent, taking up a far higher share of the airwaves.

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The political onslaught will be particularly acute in media markets that have other competitive races.

For example, Charleston, where spending in the 1st Congressional District race will also be high, or in the cities surrounding Charlotte, Savannah and Augusta, which will feature crossover ads from the even better funded U.S. Senate races in North Carolina and Georgia, as well as the presidential race.

The saturation of ads has prompted some political observers to wonder whether Harrison is approaching a point of diminishing returns, whereby he is getting less new support out of each new dollar spent.

Amanda Loveday, a top adviser to a super PAC supporting Joe Biden in the presidential race and a former S.C. Democratic Party executive director, said that remains to be seen and may depend on how effectively the money is spent.

"Democrats have just never spent this kind of money here before," Loveday said. "It may work, or we may get to a number where it just doesn't matter anymore. It will be hard to say until we see the results."

The universe of persuadable voters is vanishingly small, with just 4 percent of respondents in the last Quinnipiac poll saying they might change their minds. But even just those few voters could be enough to swing the race one way or the other.

While Harrison and Graham account for most of the spending, national outside groups have also begun pouring more of their resources into the state, especially on the Democratic side — a rare signal that the longtime minority party sees a real opportunity for an upset.

The Democratic Senate Majority PAC announced a $6.5 million investment in South Carolina this week on both television and digital advertising. That adds on to a prior announcement from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that they would spend more than $1 million in the state.

Graham's top outside help is coming from Security is Strength PAC, a group that is focused solely on him and has reserved more than $3 million worth of air time for October.

Fundraising disclosures for the third quarter of 2020, which will give a clearer picture of the two campaigns' financial shape heading into the home stretch, are not due until mid-October. 

But the publicly available spending figures already reveal how substantially Harrison is beating Graham in the money race — and help to explain why Graham has recently used his regular Fox News appearances to solicit campaign donations from viewers.

"Help me," Graham pleaded during a recent interview on Sean Hannity's primetime show. "They're killing me, money-wise. Help me."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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