Politics & Government

Beating Graham will be an uphill fight. This SC Democrat says he knows how to do it

Marvin Pendarvis says he was 25 and a “bright young lawyer” when he decided to run for city council and learned he “had no ground game.”

The North Charleston Democrat raised about $6,000 and had friends knocking on doors after work. He lost. Two years later, after attending a candidate incubator program called the James E. Clyburn Political Fellowship — started by then-S.C. Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison — Pendarvis was elected to the S.C. House of Representatives.

“We talked about how to raise money, how to craft a message, how to get donors,” Pendarvis said of the fellowship, named after Harrison’s long-time political mentor, Congressman Jim Clyburn. “I had a legitimate campaign team, and the connections from the Clyburn fellowship gave me a built-in campaign infrastructure.”

Pendarvis’ rise was the kind of impact Harrison was hoping for through the fellowship, aimed at building a talented bench of Democratic candidates in communities across the state. And now, Harrison hopes those same strategies and the network he’s built will pay off for him in a big way: in a win to the U.S. Senate.

Harrison is exploring a bid to challenge Republican incumbent Lindsey Graham in the 2020 election, although speaking to The State last month, Harrison said he’s “pretty explored out.”

“We’ll probably be moving to some type of announcement soon. … I would say in the next few weeks,” Harrison said.

If he gets in the race, Harrison would face a primary for the Democrats’ Senate nomination. Former Coastal Carolina University economics professor Gloria Bromell Tinubu, a two-time candidate for Congress and lieutenant governor, has announced plans to challenge Graham next year.

If he were to win his party’s nomination, the contest would be a big-money showdown featuring the Orangeburg native who has risen to the top ranks of the national Democratic Party in recent years, and his opponent, an incumbent U.S. senator who seems to be in a stronger position now than he’s enjoyed in recent years.

‘Create a pipeline’

Harrison knows the struggles of running for office as a Democratic in South Carolina. When Harrison became the party’s chairman in 2013, he quickly realized he had a lot of work to do to make the party competitive again.

“I didn’t realize how the infrastructure had deteriorated,” he said. “That was due, partly, not to the people here locally, but because the national party had decided not to invest in places like South Carolina. They weren’t providing what was needed to build a strong, robust organization.”

Deciding that attracting strong candidates was one of the biggest challenges, Harrison started a program to create them. Starting in 2016, the Clyburn fellowship brings together a class of prospective candidates and campaign operatives for a months-long course on the ins and outs of electoral politics.

“Jaime told me that one thing that needs to be done is to get young people involved earlier, and he wanted to create a pipeline for them,” said U.S. Rep. Clyburn, D-Columbia, in whose office Harrison had been a floor director during Clyburn’s previous stint as U.S. House majority whip. “I told him it was an excellent idea.”

Clyburn agreed to have the fellowship named after him. “What I didn’t know was that he expected me to help raise the money to pay for it,” he said.

Founded with a $50,000 contribution from the congressman, 114 fellows have completed the course to date. A dozen Clyburn fellows currently hold party positions or elected office, ranging from city council to the State House, according to the S.C. Democratic Party.

Some have run for office, like Tina Belge, the long-range county planner who ran a high-profile special election bid for a deeply red Upstate S.C. Senate seat earlier this year. And others hold jobs in the campaigns of 2020 presidential candidates, including Jessica Bright, now the deputy state director for Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

Harrison’s successor says the fellowship has been worthwhile.

At first, Trav Robertson, who took over as chairman after Harrison, said he “thought it would be self-serving, a waste of time.”

“Then I went to the sessions and listened to in-depth conversations with people all over the state, and it completely changed my mind,” Robertson said. “In a short span of time, you can see people getting elected.”

Harrison focused on other initiatives in his tenure, like holding local charitable initiatives under the party banner and dropping the names of slave-holders Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson from the party’s annual fundraising dinner. But Harrison recognizes the fellowship as his most high-profile achievement, something other state parties have approached him about emulating.

“To this day, people come up to me and say your greatest legacy will be this fellowship,” he said.

Overcoming the odds

Harrison faces long odds in the Senate race against Graham. Recent polls show Graham has solidified support among conservative voters, who have long had a weary relationship with the more moderate Graham.

In a recent Winthrop University poll, 74 percent of Republicans and 75 percent of Trump supporters approved of the job Graham was doing, as Graham has grown closer to President Donald Trump.

But Harrison has overcome major obstacles before. The son of a single teenage mother, Harrison was raised by his grandparents, who worked in construction and textiles. As a child, he remembers the family’s mobile home being foreclosed on.

But he performed well enough at Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School to be admitted to Yale University. He worked for a non-profit in Washington, D.C., while he attended law school at Georgetown University, then went to work in Clyburn’s congressional office before graduating.

“At 29 years old, he headed our whipping operation, and he was the first African American to do that,” Clyburn said.

After his time as party chair back in South Carolina, Harrison launched a bid to chair the Democratic National Committee. He now puts his past experience to use steering the DNC’s efforts to coordinate with state parties, especially in the South and in rural districts.

“Jaime’s personal story is inspiring,” said Matt Moore, who chaired South Carolina’s Republican Party at the same time as Harrison. “He’s the rare candidate who can unite the Democratic Party and be a credible opponent to any Republican he faces.”

Harrison thinks he can run a Senate campaign on similar principles, operating a “46-county” strategy that will focus on what government can do for rural areas struggling with unclean drinking water or underfunded schools.

He hopes messaging on those issues as well as health care — a winner for Democrats nationwide in 2018 — will overcome deep-seated opposition to health care reforms passed under President Barack Obama.

“In politics, it’s really easy to throw labels on things and demonize,” he said. “But if you pick apart what the Affordable Care Act is, ask them whether or not they support allowing their kids to stay on their policy until they’re 26, ask them whether or not they think those folks who have pre-existing conditions should still be allowed to get health care, ask them about whether or not they support Medicaid expansion — the polling in South Carolina is overwhelmingly in favor of Medicaid expansion.”

“Those are all, if you peel apart those various sections, extremely popular even in South Carolina,” he said.

He also plans to hammer Graham on his ties to Trump, hoping to dent Graham’s independent image and peel away moderate voters.

“You’re assuming that South Carolina is a Republican state,” said Robertson, the party chairman, when questioned about that strategy. “I’m operating from the premise that South Carolina is an independent state where Democrats lose because they run shitty campaigns.”

A $10 million goal

The last time S.C. Democrats had high hopes for a statewide challenger to one of the state’s GOP U.S. senators, that enthusiasm was short-lived.

Rick Wade dropped his U.S. Senate bid in 2014 three months after announcing it.

A former U.S. Commerce Department adviser under the Obama administration and a Cabinet director under S.C. Gov. Jim Hodges, Wade was considered a high-profile contender for the seat held by Sen. Tim Scott. But facing a short campaign calendar and an opponent with a hefty war chest, Wade decided he couldn’t raise the funds needed to be competitive.

Raising money may not be a problem for Harrison. In addition to having led the S.C. Democratic Party and worked as Clyburn’s aide in Congress, he’s a member of the Democratic National Committee and has ties to national Democratic leaders.

In the first seven weeks since he announced he was exploring a bid against Graham, Harrison raised close to a quarter-million dollars, including contributions from Clyburn’s leadership PACs. He also received money from PACs associated with other Democratic leaders such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as well as contributions from three 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.; U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif.; and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Estimating he needs about $10 million “at minimum” to compete, Harrison still has a long way to go to catch up with Graham. The state’s senior senator raised $2 million in the first three months of the year, bringing his cash to spend to $4.6 million. But he says he’s ready to do whatever it takes, launching what could be the most formidable bid state Democrats have launched for a Senate seat since state education chief Inez Tenenbaum ran in 2004 against Jim DeMint. (DeMint won by almost 10 percentage points).

“I’m one of those people who don’t mind doing call time,” Harrison said. “I had to do it for years as the chair, even if I wasn’t doing it for myself.”

Still, to win in South Carolina, Harrison says he will need help.

“Here in South Carolina, we can’t just do it on our own,” he said. “We need national support. Because many of the people we represent, like my grandparents, don’t have a lot of money.”

Harrison says outside support will be critical for a successful Senate run. To that end, he’s had conversations with Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer and Catherine Cortez Masto, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, to ensure his campaign will have the backing of the national party.

A spokesman for the DSCC said the committee doesn’t comment on future funding commitments, but it is watching the race against Graham as a potential investment opportunity.

Harrison has other Washington ties he can leverage as well. He worked for a time with the Podesta Group lobbying firm, founded by John Podesta, former chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

”I haven’t talked to John or Tony (Podesta), but if anybody wants to help, I’m happy to receive,” Harrison said. “I have talked to Secretary Clinton, and she’s always been a big supporter of mine, and someone I seek advice from from time to time.“

Clyburn, Harrison’s political mentor, said he expects Harrison to face an uphill battle, making the effort will be worthwhile.

“Obama faced an uphill battle too,” Clyburn said. “I don’t know that you can look at the difficulty of a thing and let that be the determining factor in whether you’re going to do it.”

Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.