SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:
Hey, everybody. It's Susan Davis. And before we start the show, I have a request. The NPR POLITICS PODCAST will be right here with you through Election Day and beyond, providing all the latest reporting and analysis you need to stay informed about what's happening. And the reason we can do that is because of your financial support. We know so many of you are struggling right now, but if you're in a position to do so, please take a moment and donate to your local NPR station today. You'll be funding the reporting you get from this podcast and so much more. Just go to donate.npr.org/politics to get started. And thank you.
KELSEY: Hi. This is Kelsey (ph) from Portland, Maine, and we at the Wayside Food Program kitchen have just finished cooking 140 meals, salads and cookies for our community partner. This podcast was recorded at...
DAVIS: 2:07 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 20.
KELSEY: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but here at Wayside, we'll still be busy feeding hungry Mainers. All right, here's the show.
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DAVIS: Always happy to hear from another Kelsey out there.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: (Laughter) And they're doing such great work. That's wonderful to hear.
DAVIS: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I also cover Congress.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: And I'm Don Gonyea, national political correspondent.
DAVIS: So even the most optimistic Democrat did not have South Carolina high up on their list of Senate seats the party might be able to flip in 2020. But two weeks from Election Day, that race is now considered a toss-up. Democrat Jaime Harrison is polling competitively against three-term Republican incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham. And, Don, you've had the great pleasure of spending some time in South Carolina recently. But let's start with the candidates. Who is Jaime Harrison?
GONYEA: Well, just some basics - he is introducing himself to voters because he's not well-known. He's 44 years old. He's African American. He grew up in the state in Orangeburg. He lived in poverty, growing up in a trailer park as a kid, raised by a single mother and by his grandparents. But he won a scholarship to Yale, law school followed, then a career in politics. And now he's running as a moderate Democrat, hoping to flip a Senate seat in what would be a huge, huge, huge upset.
DAVIS: Kelsey, you and I have - feel like we speak and know of Lindsey Graham very well. We spend a lot of time with him, covering him in Congress. But for people who might not know him as well as we do, how do you explain who Lindsey Graham is in the Senate right now?
SNELL: Well, I think to kind of start with Lindsey Graham, not just who he is right now but who he is to the Senate in general, is to think about the fact that he has been in Congress since 1995. And he moved over to the Senate in 2003. So he is one of those people who knows the ins, the outs, the everything about Washington in an intimate way that, you know, just - not even every elected official does. You know, he is a big personality. Most people may remember that he was best friends with the late Sen. John McCain. They tried to carve their own path, their own image, where they were a little bit independent. They would buck the trend of the party from time to time.
But after President Trump was elected, Lindsey Graham went from being an extreme Trump critic to being somebody who has crept closer and closer and closer to being Trump's closest person in the Senate. It's - it has been a total transformation. I actually remember there was a dinner in Washington where Lindsey Graham was invited and was basically dumping all over the president just before the election. And now he is, you know, in his own words, a very close friend of the president.
DAVIS: So, Don, Lindsey Graham isn't the kind of Republican that's had to face many competitive races in his life, certainly not competitive general election races...
GONYEA: Always won very easily - one thing you could always bank on was Lindsey Graham coasting to victory. The only worry that he ever had over the years was that because of his more moderate presence in the Senate as a moderate Republican, that that could lead to a serious primary challenge, as we've certainly seen...
GONYEA: ...In many places around the country here and there. This time, though, his troubles are coming in the general. So that is just not something he's encountered before.
DAVIS: So you just got back from South Carolina. Where did you go? And who'd you talk to?
GONYEA: I looked for voters. And I parked myself literally outside the big sports coliseum in Charleston. And it's got this mix of urban, suburban and rural areas over there all in close proximity, so it felt like it might be a mini-South Carolina battleground. And if Graham is going to win another term, he's going to, you know, have to do it with loyal support of those who voted for him in the past. This is 54-year-old Mike McConnell (ph). He was here voting with his father, who is also named Mike O'Connell (ph). The younger O'Connell is a police officer. He described himself as an independent voter but conservative. He voted for Trump but said he isn't always pleased with the president's demeanor. And he said this about why he's sticking with Sen. Graham.
MIKE MCCONNELL: Stability for one thing - he supports the police. I know that for sure. Supreme Court is a big issue. And even though I'm independent, I would prefer that the Republicans hold on to the Senate.
GONYEA: So you can hear him tick off those basic things there. And as I talk to people, I'm actually starting to wonder if it's going to be hard to find someone who's voting against Graham. And that's when I introduced myself to a woman named Melinda Nicholson (ph). She was also there to vote early. She is a real estate agent. I asked her who she's going to vote for, and she did not hesitate.
MELINDA NICHOLSON: I'm voting for Jaime Harrison. Oh, boy.
GONYEA: Have you ever voted for Lindsey Graham?
NICHOLSON: I have. I have voted for him every time. But, you know, that's - I'm just not pleased with what's happening now.
NICHOLSON: And he seems to be Trump's minion, and I don't like that.
GONYEA: The thing that really did surprise me - how it was not all that hard to find people disillusioned with Graham. I met Andy Savage, who is a prominent Charleston attorney. He did say he leans Democratic, but he says he has always been a Lindsey Graham voter from the very beginning of Lindsey Graham's career. And he shared that history with me.
ANDY SAVAGE: And financially, we support him and, you know, all the bumper stickers and all that sort of stuff and politics that you do. We were all in. Six years ago, we were eyeball to eyeball. Four years ago, we were eyeball to eyeball, and then he just veered off to never-never land.
DAVIS: Yeah, that's interesting.
GONYEA: And he referred back to the fact that Graham has always counted on voters like him to help him fend off primary challengers, conservative primary challengers. Now this attorney says he thinks Graham is just thumbing his nose at those moderate voters that used to be so important to him.
SNELL: Don, did you find anybody who said that they were going to be a Trump voter and a Harrison voter?
GONYEA: That was the elusive voter. I could not find a Trump-Harrison voter. I mean, if you look at Harrison's record and if you look at Trump, it's not surprising. Except it would seem like if Lindsey Graham is going to lose, there have to be some voters that are going to vote for Trump and Harrison because Trump is maintaining his lead in the state.
DAVIS: All right. Let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk about how money is impacting this race.
And we're back. And South Carolina is probably the best example of another trend we're seeing playing out across Senate races all over the country this year, and that is fundraising. Democratic candidates are consistently outraising not just Republican candidates, Republican incumbents. And in South Carolina, Jaime Harrison raised more money than any candidate ever in a Senate race in the third quarter of this year. He raised, I believe, $56 million. Don, can you even spend $56 million in a South Carolina Senate race?
GONYEA: Just for fun, let's call it 57 million (laughter) because that's what it was. And you can't. You can't buy enough ads. This isn't a state with big, expensive, major media markets. There's nothing that he won't be able to do because of money. And I will tell you he has even gone so far as spent money promoting a third-party Constitution Party candidate in the race.
SNELL: Which is actually like - that's a strategy that might be helpful to him, right? Like, if he can split Republican voters, people who are looking for any alternative to Lindsey Graham and give them an alternative, make sure that they know the alternative exists, you know, that could actually be a material help to him.
GONYEA: Anything to give people an avenue to cast their vote other than Graham could help him.
DAVIS: It's very South Carolina because if there's one state that is sort of known for dirty tricks in political campaigns, it's South Carolina. And that's sort of a classic in the genre is to prop up an opponent in the race to try to help yourself.
GONYEA: And I talked to Jaime Harrison about that, and he was very coy. He didn't deny it. He admitted it. But he said, you know, South Carolina voters need to know who's running all the way down the ballot.
SNELL: Talking about people up and down the ballot, it is not uncommon for donors to funnel money to challengers, even longshot challengers, to people who are really prominent figures like Lindsey Graham. He's the chairman of the judiciary committee at a time when they are working on the approval of a nomination of a Supreme Court nominee. That's going to get people excited, right?
SNELL: But just to give you some perspective on the money, 32 out of the 33 brand-new people running for House seats - so not even like Senate-level, statewide races - 32 Democrats running to unseat Republicans outraised those sitting Republicans in this last quarter. Those are not races that usually attract money, but there is something very different happening this cycle.
DAVIS: Kelsey, we've talked a lot about the races we knew were going to be competitive - Colorado, Maine, North Carolina, Arizona. South Carolina we weren't really talking about this time last year. Where does it fit into the competitive race map right now? If Democrats are winning South Carolina on election night, what does that tell us about the race for the control of the Senate?
SNELL: Oh, it tells us that the control of the Senate is completely flipped. If Democrats win South Carolina, that means that they have won those other states that you mentioned. It means that there is a nationwide wave happening that is going to take down a lot of people who weren't expecting it. We don't know that it's actually going to turn out that way. I will say that the polling has had Harrison and Lindsey Graham very, very, very close. And presidential elections tend to bring out people who don't normally vote in Senate races, who don't normally vote at all. And this race in particular is very animating for people who are strongly in either camp. So we don't know where this one is going. But if we do reach a point where Lindsey Graham is losing, the other people, you know, like you talked about - Colorado, Maine, Arizona, North Carolina - I mean, honestly, basically every seat that Democrats are hoping to pick up is going to be picked up if South Carolina is going their way.
DAVIS: Yeah, although I do think with South Carolina - and I've said this a lot. I'm a South Carolina skeptic for two big hunks of chunks of salt here - you know, one being it's a presidential election year and nobody thinks President Trump's going to lose South Carolina, and people just really don't split their tickets anymore, so the sheer reality of a Trump victory there might just be all Lindsey Graham needs. And the other thing is, that money - it's spectacular. It's huge. It's historic. But it doesn't necessarily translate into victory. And you can look to a race like Kentucky, where the Democrat there, Amy McGrath, is also out-fundraising Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by leaps and bounds, and he's on a clear path to reelection. So always be skeptical that fundraising is going to translate into victory.
GONYEA: It's a steep climb. It's just a steep climb for any Democrat running against an incumbent or not-an-incumbent Republican in South Carolina.
SNELL: A whole stack of dominoes basically have to fall first before Lindsey Graham is the one who's going to fall (laughter).
DAVIS: All right, that's a wrap for today. Remember; you can support all of us on this podcast by supporting your local NPR station. Head to donate.npr.org/politics to get started.
I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I also cover Congress.
GONYEA: And I'm Don Gonyea, national political correspondent.
DAVIS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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