There had been murmurs within the elections-watching community that the Senate race in South Carolina had been tightening, information that was normally coming from those on the inside. But the public data, while close, hadn’t yet produced the single moment that would signal a potentially close race. That is, until Wednesday. Quinnipiac University released a poll showing Senator Lindsey Graham (R) tied with challenger Jaime Harrison (D). In one single moment, the election punditry world remarked that the Palmetto State may be another potential hole for Republicans to try to plug on the expanding Senate map.
As we head into the last stretch of the campaign for the Senate, where at best the GOP has only a 50/50 shot of keeping control of the chamber, the party needs to prevent more states from entering tossup territory. This is why the South Carolina Senate poll was so alarming. After all, Lindsey Graham is a three-term incumbent who has never faced a close re-election attempt. Moreover, South Carolina is a red state: it last elected a Democrat to statewide office in 2006. So is Graham really in trouble, or is the Quinnipiac poll simply an outlier? Let’s take a look through the current state of the race and South Carolina’s political trends to find out.
Understanding South Carolina Politics
To understand a race, you have to first understand where it’s taking place. South Carolina is a fundamentally conservative state. It was once represented by the conservative southern Democratic Party and it switched to the Republican Party at an earlier time than other similar southern states. It has only voted for one Democrat for President in the last 56 years, Jimmy Carter in 1976. South Carolina even resisted the strong southern appeal of Bill Clinton in the 90s. South Carolina last elected a Democrat for Senate in 1998, and that was mostly due to the enduring appeal of legendary Senator Fritz Hollings. It last elected a Democrat for Governor in 1990. Simply put, Democrats just don’t win statewide races for major office in South Carolina.
Why? Well, South Carolina experiences the polarized politics of most southern states. White voters, by and large, align with the Republicans while the black population votes almost uniformly for Democrats. Since white voters outnumber black voters considerably, the state stays red. This makes South Carolina a relatively inelastic state, meaning that it shifts less between elections than other states where voting patterns are less polarized. That results in Democrats having a high floor, but also a low ceiling.
Since 2000, every Democratic nominee for President has received at least 40% of the vote in South Carolina. However, none have received 45%, and that encompasses a wide range of national margins. There simply aren’t many swing voters in the state. While a Democrat starts in a far better spot than in say, Wyoming, they typically run into a ceiling around 46%. That number is what James Smith (D) received in his bid for Governor in 2018, an 8 point loss to incumbent Henry McMaster (R). Vincent Shaheen (D) actually managed to hit 46.91% in 2010, a 4.5% loss to Nikki Haley (R). Getting to 50% has proved extremely difficult for Democrats in the past.
The largest counties by population in South Carolina are Greenville, Richland , Charleston, Horry, and Spartanburg. While Greenville, Spartanburg, and Horry are major Republican anchors, Richland is strongly Democratic. Moreover, Charleston has been a major area for Democratic growth in the state. Republicans run up the score in the northwestern part of the state, which contains more rural voters. They also perform well as Greenville and Spartanburg. The main source of Democratic strength is the black belt, the strip of blue stretching across the middle of the state.
A Path to Victory
A map of a recent Democratic win in South Carolina does not exist. However, the key to it would likely be in Charleston and the Lowcountry, which runs down the Atlantic coast. This is an area that makes up the 1st congressional district, which was a Democratic flip in the 2018 midterms.
Charleston County is one of the places trending blue most rapidly and was, along with neighboring Beaufort County, one of the only places in the state that Hillary Clinton did better than Barack Obama in. This was despite Clinton doing considerably worse statewide. Beaufort is home to the resort town Hilton Head Island. Both counties more highly educated than South Carolina overall and are home to some Trump-skeptical Republicans. Surging Democratic margins in this region is a prime area for the party to target in 2020.
The State of the Race
As it stands right now, the South Carolina Senate race is undeniably competitive. There are a few factors driving this reality, starting with the high democratic floor in the state. Though the ceiling looms large, it’s a decent spot to begin when you feel comfortable penciling yourself at 40% to start out.
Lindsey Graham’s unpopularity is fueling Democratic momentum. It the Republican incumbent up this year was Tim Scott, this would not be a competitive race. Scott is an uncontroversial, standard Republican, whereas Lindsey Graham has alienated a lot of voters in the state. Followers of national politics are probably familiar with Graham, once known as a conservative maverick and close friend of John McCain. He heavily criticized Donald Trump’s rise into politics only to pull a 180º turn when Trump became President.
Since then he has emerged as Trump’s biggest fan, waxing poetic about the President during the Kavanaugh hearings and the impeachment trial. Hardcore Trump supporters still view Graham’s support skeptically. Many remember his scathing comments about Trump from 2016, and some, like Tucker Carlson, have been quick to throw Graham under the bus for just about everything that goes wrong in the administration.
On the flipside, Never Trump Republicans, Democrats, and independents who once respected Graham’s independence now see him as a Trump lackey. All told, Graham has found a way to run up a negative approval rating in a Republican state.
A Solid Recruit
A final factor is Jaime Harrison, the Democratic challenger. Harrison’s proving to be an excellent candidate, a young black man raised by a single mother who got a scholarship to Yale and a law degree from Georgetown before leading the South Carolina Democratic Party while still in his 30s. His energy on the campaign trail, as well as the national liberal disgust at Graham, have helped the Democrat raise money with shocking ease. He reeled in nearly $14 million in Q2 of 2020 and he raised a full $2 million in the two days since the Quinnipiac poll was released. Harrison’s inspiring story, charisma as a candidate, and piggy bank have helped to make this race interesting.
An average of the last four polls of the race gives Graham a one-point lead. The Quinnipiac poll stood out because it showed Harrison at 48%, surpassing the so-called 46% ceiling. None of the previous polls had shown him higher than 45%. That poll’s fundamentals didn’t seem too sugary for Democrats either. It had Trump leading Biden by a 6 point margin (51-45), which would jibe with a large Biden lead nationally. It also gave the President a +6 favorable rating and a +3 job approval rating, numbers that line up with his rather poor standard in both categories nationally. With those being the topline numbers, it appears that Harrison is doing something to draw Trump-supporting voters to him.
Moreover, the current state of public polling seems to be similar to the state of private polling. The Cook Political Report’s Senate editor Jessica Taylor noted that the numbers lined up with private data. Another hint came from Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which tabbed South Carolina as a potential Democratic flip in a wave Senate election this fall in a recent article.
Finally, Lindsey Graham himself seems to be acting like there is a very close race raging between the two men. He recently challenged Harrison to release his tax returns. This was an odd stunt that Harrison was easily able to flip into a commentary about the President. That type of messaging from Graham is indicative of a nervous incumbent Senator.
Republicans are Favored, But by How Much?
Lindsey Graham is in some degree of trouble, the question is how much. For one, your author asserts that Graham is still favored, and most political observers will agree. It would take a clear and consistent Harrison polling lead for election handicappers to peg a Democrat to be a favorite in a statewide race in South Carolina.
Republicans will get the benefit of the doubt in a state that is conservative. However, it’s not inconceivable that the race could move into the tossup column, provided that there are more polls showing Harrison above the typical 46% ceiling and inching towards 50%. Even if he’s at 48%, the final 2% is going to be the hardest slog due to South Carolina’s inelasticity. However, that is where the Constitution Party, which has fielded a candidate in this race, could be pivotal. If three to four percent of Trump voters vote for the third-party conservative candidate instead of Graham, that might allow Harrison to pull an upset with a plurality.
Still, even that result is unlikely and would need a strong Democratic night to happen. South Carolina isn’t in the Democratic bare minimum path to the majority; rather it’s an icing on the cake type of state you would get in a wave environment. Republicans got that surprise in 2014 when Thom Tillis upset Kay Hagan in North Carolina. Democrats got one in 2012 when Heidi Heitkamp upset Rick Berg in North Dakota. Sometimes on strong nights for your party in a chamber, you win a race you were expected to lose. South Carolina could be that state if Joe Biden is winning by 10% nationally and Democrats are cruising towards 52 or 53 Senate seats.
It’s unlikely that South Carolina is seat 50 or 51. North Carolina, Iowa, and Georgia seem far more plausible at this time. In conclusion, though, this is a race worth paying attention to. It poses an interesting battle for a well-known national figure. While Graham is favored to hang on, if the perfect storm hits South Carolina’s shores, Harrison is positioned to potentially take the Senate seat.