Harrison could not have foreseen that things in his state would get even worse because of the coronavirus pandemic. In early July, the New York Times reported that, adjusted for population size, South Carolina had the third-worst outbreak in the world, with 2,300 confirmed new cases per million residents over the preceding week. Meanwhile, the protests in response to George Floyd’s death have prompted many Americans to consider the impact of racism on every aspect of society, including this election. Both issues have provided Harrison with campaign fodder that didn’t exist when he announced his candidacy. If Harrison manages to unseat Graham, it would mean that South Carolina, which still keeps a statue of Tillman, the racist former governor, at its statehouse, would have two Black senators.
On a grassy hillside overlooking the Reedy River in downtown Greenville, roughly 50 people gathered for a Juneteenth celebration. In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, sprawling Greenville County is the most populous county in South Carolina, and reliably Republican. But the city at its center is different. A quarter of Greenville residents are Black and four out of seven City Council members are Democrats. Michelin and BMW are headquartered nearby, along with Furman University, providing an influx of international and academic residents.
At the Juneteenth festival, commemorating the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Texas learned they had been emancipated, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” blared from loudspeakers on the outdoor stage. Devon Taylor, 30, stood nearby wearing a red-and-white T-shirt that said: “Make Racists Scared Again.” The nursing student said he plans to vote for Jaime Harrison “Because I want to unseat Lindsey Graham.” Taylor, who is Black, said he usually votes Democrat but had just voted in the Republican primary against Graham (who had three opponents and won 67.6 percent of the vote.) When I met him, Taylor was chatting with Christen Clinkscales, a 31-year-old with red hair and freckles. “One hundred percent not Lindsey Graham,” Clinkscales said of her voting preferences. “He’s been in office a long time, and what has he done?”
Clinkscales was raised in a conservative household in Greenville, where even her Republican father referred to the senator as “Lindsey ‘Fifteen Seconds of Fame’ Graham.” (Before he became a fixture on Fox News, Graham earned a reputation for hogging the microphone with folksy, quotable soundbites during Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings). But during the five years she lived in New York after college, her political views had evolved. Now back home and working in marketing, she heard about Harrison through her local Young Democrats chapter and supports him. The nation’s reckoning with racial justice over the past few months has influenced her perspective. “White people need to step up,” she said. “I’ve been trying to be a better white person.”
Not everyone in the crowd was familiar with Harrison. MaKenzie Donald, 27, and Heather Nasuti, 30, were seeking shelter from the rain shortly after the festival began. Both women said they are registered but don’t regularly vote. Neither had decided on a Senate candidate. When I mentioned that an African American man was hoping to unseat Graham, their first question was whether he was a Democrat. “If I had to pick one today, it wouldn’t be Lindsey Graham,” said Nasuti, who is white. “I’m more left-leaning I guess,” she added. “It’d be nice to see some Southern states leaning in that direction.”
Donald, who is Black, said she accompanied her father to the polls when she was too young to vote. Now, she admits, voting is “something I want to get better at.”
Voters like her are part of the reason Harrison is facing such an uphill battle. According to Vinson, the Furman University professor, the “real place he stands a chance is independent voters and getting young people to the polls.” But there’s no guarantee either group—or voters of color—will turn out in large numbers in November.
Although a third of South Carolina’s 3.37 million voters are nonwhite, the state also has more than 400,000 unregistered voters of color, according to the progressive data company Catalist. Harrison isn’t campaigning in person, and he’s fighting the sense from Blacks and Democrats that his quest is hopeless. In the past, Vinson explains, conservative Democrats supported Graham because South Carolina is such a red state, and they’d rather have him than someone more right wing. “I think this time around they’re probably not [going to vote for Graham],” she said. “This time around, they’ve actually got a credible candidate.”
Jimmy Williams, a Democratic strategist and senior adviser to the anti-Graham LindseyMustGo PAC, says Black voters will be motivated by the “wildly popular” Joe Biden at the top of the ticket, along with several candidates of color further down the ballot, including Clyburn and Harrison. In the February presidential primary, Biden won 61 percent of Black voters in South Carolina, according to a Washington Post analysis, and the overall turnout of 540,000 voters surpassed Barack Obama’s 2008 primary turnout in the state by about 7,000 votes.
A memo released by Harrison’s campaign in early February laid out a clear, if ambitious, path to victory. He planned to register a quarter of eligible African Americans, mobilize “new and inconsistent” voters of color and “persuade white suburban voters who are already moving away from Republicans.” Harrison was also counting on some Republicans to abandon Graham for more conservative candidates. About 6.6 percent of voters chose Libertarian or independent candidates over Graham six years ago, and there are similar candidates on the ballot this year who could help Harrison’s cause.