Elections

Jaime Harrison builds small-donor army in U.S. Senate bid against SC’s Lindsey Graham

Lindsey Graham and Jamie Harrison
Lindsey Graham and Jamie Harrison The State

The leading Republican and Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate in South Carolina have broken state fundraising records.

Sitting Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham raised over $3 million from April through June, according to a statement put out by his campaign on Monday afternoon — the most any Republican who has ever run for U.S. Senate in the Palmetto State has raised at this early stage in the campaign season.

During the same period, Democrat Jaime Harrison raised $1.5 million, an unprecedented haul for a South Carolina Democrat in a U.S. Senate race.

A former state party chairman who now holds a leadership position with the Democratic National Committee, Harrison spent nearly $184,000 on Facebook ads and $38,500 on Twitter, frequently using Graham’s name and image to appeal to Democrats’ dislike of the incumbent.

If the goal was to attract small donors — the coveted category of contributors that is crucial to building a lasting campaign and a sign of a candidate’s standing with the grassroots — the effort paid off. In this fundraising period, Harrison collected two-thirds —or about $1 million — of his campaign cash from donors giving less than $200. Of the estimated 750 donors who contributed more than $200 to Harrison this quarter, 173 hailed from South Carolina.

Donors from 33 states gave more to federal candidates running in last year’s midterm elections than S.C. contributors gave to them, according to analyses from OpenSecrets.org. And in South Carolina, only a third of those federal campaign contributions went to Democrats.

If the same holds true this election cycle, Harrison is already working with a very small donor pool, making it even more important for him cultivate and sustain his grassroots, small donor network.

Ultimately, Harrison faces a significantly steep climb ahead of the November 2020 election.

Graham, the chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee and an entrenched incumbent who has never been more popular with Republican voters, maintains the major fundraising advantage with reporting nearly $6.5 million in the bank. Meanwhile, Harrison has about $1.5 million left to spend.

Graham is also keeping his hold on political action committees representing major corporations that tend to favor incumbents regardless of party affiliation: Through the first quarter of 2019, Graham raked in almost $635,000 from business PACs, while Harrison has so far received no contributions from this sector.

Still, while all challenges against incumbent lawmakers are referendums on an incumbent’s likability, Harrison is showing his campaign strategy is to deeply energize Democrats around Graham’s increasingly polarizing persona.

As Graham has embraced President Donald Trump and leaned into his newly-cemented standing as a conservative hardliner, he also has likely repelled any Democratic voters in South Carolina who once tended to laud their senator for being a dealmaker unafraid to cross the aisle to get things done.

These South Carolinians, plus independents, are the ones Harrison is hoping to attract with his Twitter hashtag “#SendLindseyHome.”

Friends in high places

Though Harrison can boast about his South Carolina grassroots support, his fundraising numbers in the year’s second quarter also show that his campaign has gone national — in part due to the national dislike for Graham among progressives.

He received contributions from politically active liberal celebrities like Bradley Whitford, star of the late-1990s political drama The West Wing, and comedian Rosie O’Donnell. Whitford and O’Donnell gave Harrison $1,000 and $5,000, respectively.

Harrison’s fundraising also benefits from his establishment ties in Washington, where Democrats are eager to defeat Graham as part of their effort to wrest back control of the U.S. Senate.

National party leaders plus the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed Harrison within hours of his official campaign announcement despite the fact that Harrison is running in a Democratic primary against a two-time congressional candidate, Democratic economist Gloria Bromell Tinubu.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia — the 2016 Democratic vice presidential nominee — each gave $10,000 to Harrison’s campaign through their leadership political action committees. Georgia Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, who recently endorsed Harrison, chipped in $5,000 each.

U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the most powerful S.C. Democrat for whom Harrison once worked on Capitol Hill in senior positions, contributed to Harrison in previous fundraising quarters and plans to be active in helping to raise money going forward.

Though only one presidential hopeful gave money to Harrison’s campaign so far this quarter — $500 from U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio — endorsing Harrison was considered a political “must” for many of the two dozen contenders who gathered in the critical early primary state last month for the South Carolina Democratic Party convention weekend.

Even U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent, urged convention-goers to elect Harrison, despite the fact that Harrison’s resume might ordinarily bother the self-described Democratic Socialist who has built a personal brand on aggressively distancing himself from the “establishment” wing of the party.

During some of the years he spent as the unpaid chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party, Harrison also was a lobbyist with the now-defunct Podesta Group. Unlike some of his fellow Democrats who are rejecting campaign contributions from registered lobbyists, Harrison accepted contributions from some of his former Podesta colleagues this fundraising quarter, including David Kusnet, who currently lobbies as a foreign agent for Iraq.

This story was produced in partnership between McClatchy and OpenSecrets. Redistribution for any purpose requires permission from both parties.

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