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Jaime Harrison takes first official step to challenge Lindsey Graham for U.S. Senate

After hinting for months about a 2020 challenge to Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, Democrat Jaime Harrison took the first step Thursday toward officially entering the race.

The former S.C. Democratic Party chairman, who now has a leadership position with the Democratic National Committee, formally will announce an “exploratory committee” Friday to determine whether he has a viable path to beating Graham.

The 24-year incumbent has big advantages. He is a Republican in a red state. And he has national name recognition, an influential Senate committee chairmanship and more than $3 million in cash on hand.

“We’re gonna go into this thing eyes wide open, and if there is not a path we just have to call a spade a spade.” Harrison told McClatchy in an exclusive interview. “But I believe there is a path.”

That path will depend on a number of factors: How much money Harrison can raise, if he can excite the Democratic base, and whether S.C. voters will have tired of President Donald Trump and those who align with him by next year.

Harrison didn’t say what his fundraising goals are.

Graham won re-election in 2014 most recently. Between Jan. 1, 2013 and Dec. 31, 2014, the Seneca Republican raised $8 million, spent $10 million and closed out the election cycle with $2.4 million in cash on hand. At that time, Graham was fending off competition in his GOP primary election.

If Harrison presents a formidable challenge, both candidates likely will have to raise and spend more money in 2020.

Graham increasingly has been operating under the assumption that Trump’s popularity in South Carolina will remain high, and that closely associating himself with the president will pay off. Harrison’s political calculation is that Trump enthusiasm already has begun to diminish.

“People are tired of the politics of Donald Trump. l really do believe that,” Harrison said.

For proof, Harrison cited last year’s stunning results in South Carolina’s 1st District race for the U.S. House. There, for the first time since 1981, a Democrat, U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, beat a Republican, former GOP state Rep. Katie Arrington.

Arrington ran on a pro-Trump platform, which helped her oust incumbent Republican Mark Sanford, a Trump critic, in the GOP primary. But Arrington’s unwavering allegiance to the president did not help her in November’s general election.

“Just ask Katie Arrington how that worked out for her. She wanted to be the Kellyanne Conway of Congress,” said Harrison, alluding to one of Trump’s senior advisers. “(Arrington) was a Trump acolyte. She tried to talk and be brusque, and rough and tumble like Donald Trump. Let’s see where that got her.”

Harrison hopes to present himself as a viable alternative to the moderate and independent voters who have been casting ballots for Graham for years, fearful the senator could be ousted in a GOP primary by a far-right conservative or generally unimpressed by his Democratic opponents. Harrison wants to show that Graham, in embracing Trump, is no longer the even-tempered, bipartisan deal-maker that once made him an attractive choice to centrists.

“I know Democrats who have written Lindsey Graham checks. There is a swath of independents who have saved (Graham) from campaigns coming from the right,” Harrison explained. “People are tired of the new Lindsey Graham ... Here’s a guy who for the past two years has talked out of both sides of his mouth, from a few years ago basically calling the president a bigoted racist to now loving the president.”

Harrison said he is pursuing an aggressive strategy to tap the money and resources necessary to win. In a nod to the political realities of how much money it would take to beat an entrenched Republican in a red state, Harrison said he was willing to reject the recent Democratic trend of declining donations from corporate lobbyists and political action committees in favor of small-dollar donations from the grassroots.

“I hope the bulk of my money comes from small dollar donors ... (but) at the end of the day, South Carolinians understand you need to have some national resources,” he explained. “There are not a lot of deep pockets to fund multimilllion-dollar campaigns in the state.”

Harrison could benefit from the fact the S.C. Democratic Party has been fundraising since last fall to help finance a Graham challenger, motivated by the senator’s full-throated defense of Brett Kavanaugh to serve on the Supreme Court amidst allegations of sexual misconduct. This was the moment that turned Graham into a darling among conservatives and a villain among Democrats.

Graham’s performance at the Kavanaugh hearings was also what made Harrison decide he needed to seriously consider running for the Senate. Previously, he had imagined he would run for Congress in the 6th District whenever U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., decided to retire.

An Orangeburg, S.C., native, Harrison was raised by his grandparents and was the first in his family to attend college. He attended Yale University and then Georgetown Law School.

After graduation, Harrison worked for Clyburn, who he considers his political mentor, on Capitol Hill. By 2006, Harrison was the youngest and first black executive director of the House Democratic Caucus. He moved back to South Carolina and was elected the first African-American chairman of the state Democratic Party in 2013. Between 2008 and 2016, Harrison worked for the now-shuttered Podesta Group, a consulting and lobbying firm.

Harrison forged more political connections within the party and across the country when he ran for chairman of the Democratic National Committee after the 2016 election. His consolation prize was being named associate chairman of the national party, responsible for overseeing party building in the South, and helping coordinate the 2020 conventions and Democratic primary debates.

Harrison said he will continue as associate DNC chairman as he explores a run for Senate. According to Federal Election Commission filings, the DNC cuts Harrison a check for roughly $5,000 every two weeks, meaning he makes about $130,000 a year.

Asked if he thought a Democrat could beat him, Graham replied, “Anyone can be beat.

“The question for voters ... is, am I the best choice of the choices available,” he added. “I think I’d make a good case, no matter who runs, that I’m the good choice.

“Time will tell.”

Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.