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VP Pence stumps for Graham, celebrates Supreme Court confirmation at Greenville rally

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Election 2020 Pence South Carolina

Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a campaign rally at an airplane hangar in Greenville on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. Meg Kinnard/AP

GREENVILLE — In a packed rally Tuesday just a week before Election Day, Vice President Mike Pence lauded U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham for his role in the confirmation of President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, and urged South Carolina voters to reward him with another term in office.

Pence said the confirmation of more than 200 federal judges during the Trump administration "would not have been possible" without Graham, calling the South Carolina Republican "a stalwart, courageous, principled leader." 

"The rule of law has no greater friend than your senator," Pence told a crowd of more than 1,000 in a hangar at Greenville's Donaldson Airport. "So right after you reelect President Donald Trump, we need South Carolina to reelect Sen. Lindsey Graham for six more years."

Speakers throughout the rally acknowledged the gravity of the threat Graham is facing in his unanticipated competitive race against Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison, who has broken national fundraising records by bringing in more than $100 million for his bid to unseat the Republican incumbent in a GOP-leaning state.

U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, said Graham is "in the fight of his political life." But Norman, like many other Republican officials there to fire up the crowd, continued to express confidence

"South Carolina cannot be bought," said Norman, who faces Democratic challenger Moe Brown in his own reelection race.

Graham received one of the biggest cheers of the day when he told the crowd that South Carolinians will not have to see any more of Harrison's ads starting Nov. 4.

"We may get outraised, but we're not going to be outvoted," Graham said.

Outside of the Supreme Court, Pence offered much of his standard stump speech fare on Trump's behalf, touting the president's tariffs against China, a renegotiated trade deal with Canada and Mexico, and a rise in manufacturing jobs during Trump's tenure in office.

Pence's visit was a rare South Carolina campaign stop for a sitting president or vice president so close to a general election. The last time that happened was October 2002, a non-presidential midterm year, when Republican President George W. Bush spoke in Columbia in support of Graham during his first U.S. Senate campaign.

Pence stuck with his rally plans even after several of his staff members tested positive for the coronavirus in recent days. The vice president's office said Pence tested negative Tuesday morning.

Hundreds of attendees at the rally were not wearing masks, including after an announcement over the loud speaker encouraged them to shortly before the event started.

Greenville County saw the highest number of new coronavirus cases in the state Tuesday at 106.

Pence continued to emphasize the virus' origin in China and praised Trump for his move to suspend travel from that country early in the year. As the virus has now claimed more than 225,000 lives in America and almost 4,000 in South Carolina, Pence said it is still important for the country to continue reopening its economy.

S.C. Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson said Pence's arrival amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic "is an insult to every South Carolinian who believes health care is a human right and wants to see this virus stopped and under control."

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"Mike Pence is in South Carolina for only one reason and it’s to shore up evangelical voters on behalf of Lindsey Graham," Robertson said. "Republicans should be scared because he is losing in areas that should be strongholds, and Lindsey Graham’s time as a South Carolina Senator is rapidly concluding."

The rally with Pence marked Graham’s return to the campaign trail after several weeks in Washington, D.C., focused on the Supreme Court confirmation.

Harrison, who has conducted much of his campaigning virtually to avoid risk of contracting the virus, has added more in-person stops in recent weeks in the form of drive-in rallies where attendees remain in their cars.

His latest one Monday night at a historically Black college in Columbia also featured a concert by rapper Common and followed a stop at a popular Black barbershop in town — an effort by Harrison to boost turnout from Black voters, whom he views as crucial to his chances of an upset.

While Graham has emphasized his support of Barrett, hoping it will win conservative votes, Harrison has repeatedly declined to take a position on whether he would have voted for or against her, saying he believes she is qualified but has unanswered questions about her stances on civil rights issues.

U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the state’s most influential Democratic lawmaker and a longtime mentor to Harrison, said he is hopeful voters will focus more on the fact that Graham reversed his position from 2018, when he promised that Republicans would not vote to confirm a Supreme Court nominee so close to an election.

"If you don't care about the honor of telling the truth, of keeping faith with voters, then maybe it is a winning issue," said Clyburn, D-Columbia. "But I've never seen dishonesty and lying to be an honorable thing."

In Greenville, many attendees at the rally cited Graham's work on the Supreme Court confirmations as the reason behind their support.

Earnest Abins said he rarely attends political events, and was on the fence about Graham until just a few years ago.

That changed when he saw Graham give an impassioned defense of Brett Kavanaugh during the Supreme Court justice’s confirmation hearing. And Graham's role in Barrett’s successful confirmation as chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee only reaffirmed Abins' support for him.

Overturning Roe v. Wade, the court's landmark 1973 decision that ruled women have a constitutional right to access abortions, is Abins’ top priority, and he said he’s hopeful that’s possible now that there’s a strong conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

"I think a lot of Lindsey Graham and what he’s done for Kavanaugh and for Justice Barrett, and that’s the reason I’m here today, to support that," Abins said.

Others, like Susan Aiken, said they had long been staunch Graham supporters dating back to his first run for Senate in 2002. But Aiken said she had grown concerned recently about how competitive the Senate race has become and the amount of money Harrison has raised.

"I just think it’s absurd," she said. "But I don’t think money’s going to buy it. I think the people of South Carolina know what’s going on."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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