Let’s begin with the obvious: No Democrat has won a statewide race in South Carolina since 2006.
That includes nationally recognizable names like Bakari Sellers, the former state legislator who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor and is now a CNN commentator, and moderates like James Smith Jr., who lost his race for governor last year to the Republican incumbent, Gov. Henry McMaster.
Enter Jaime Harrison.
Mr. Harrison, the first black chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party and a former Washington lobbyist, declared his candidacy on Wednesday morning for the U.S. Senate seat held by Lindsey Graham, a Republican who has served three terms. Mr. Graham’s race is likely to draw attention in 2020: He has shifted from a sharp critic of President Trump to a prominent ally, and Democrats are hoping that grass-roots energy around defeating Mr. Trump will help some Senate and House candidates score unlikely victories. (Mr. Trump carried South Carolina by 14 percentage points in 2016, of course.)
In an interview with The Times in New York City, Mr. Harrison — who stepped down as state party chair in 2017 — discussed the difference between a conservative and a Republican (in his view), the 2020 Democratic presidential race, and why he believes some South Carolinians will punish Mr. Graham for his embrace of Mr. Trump.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Q: How can a Democrat win statewide in South Carolina?
A: If a Democrat runs the race I’m going to run, which is not about Democrat or Republican, or is not about left or right, but is about right or wrong — if a Democrat runs that type of race? They can win.
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I know what it’s like to grow up and not to afford a carton of milk and put water in your cereal. I know what it’s like to dig in the couches to find a quarter or two to pull together so you can get a gallon of gas and your grandfather can go to work. That is not something defined by whether you’re a Democrat or Republican. That’s the life that so many people — particularly in rural South Carolina — are living right now.
In such a red state, how do you motivate an overwhelmingly black Democratic base while, at the same time, convincing Republicans and Trump voters to back you? It would seem you need to do both.
South Carolina is more of a conservative state than a Republican state.
What does that distinction mean?
It means about 45 percent of people in the state are Republicans; about 42 percent, I’d say, are Democrats. And then there’s this squishy middle, who will probably identify as politically independent but vote Republican six or seven times out of ten. But given a solid Democrat, a flawed Republican, and some synergy — we’ll see some change.
Lindsey Graham has never gotten over 55 percent of the vote in his elections. You peel the onion and ask, “Where did he get those votes from?” You see on the far left and far right he’s never done very well, which is why he was always in danger, particularly on the right. But now — since his embrace of Donald Trump — he has garnered more attention from the far right, but he’s lost a lot of headway with independents and Democrats.
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But Trumpism is the Republican Party. Isn’t Graham simply doing what conservative Republicans want in your state?
We haven’t had a candidate run against Lindsey, since the first time he ran, who can echo these issues and articulate them to voters. That’s why I think we have a shot. South Carolina is changing, reverse migration is taking place. A lot of the black folks who used to be in Ohio and Chicago and all those places, they’re coming back home to the South. You see that in Atlanta, and Charleston, and Charlotte, and all across the South. You see the explosion of the Latino population.
So it’s not a matter of persuading Republicans, but motivating new people to vote?
You have to do both.
But I think of the midterms, where several statewide candidates across the South made this argument: Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum, Beto O’Rourke. All of them lost. Why can you do what they can’t?
Well I think Abrams actually won.
I think I understand the state party. And I think I understand the service component. You have to show, not tell. We have to rebuild trust in these communities. You can’t just say you’ll do A, B, C or D. They want actions, not just words.
And of course you’re running in a presidential year.
Listen, that could have an influence on it. But it wasn’t part of my calculus. For me, people are hurting in South Carolina and for years I recruited candidates to run. And then I thought about Dr. Martin Luther King’s quote about sitting on the sidelines and said “I just can’t sit on the sidelines any longer and change things,” I need to do it.
Last question. I keep coming back to this: Isn’t Graham’s approval rating higher since embracing Trump? The president is still popular in red states. How do you overcome that?
You talk to people in their hearts and their guts and you appeal to them on a human level. That’s my working theory. But we need the resources. In the past, the Democrats who have run statewide have not had national support in order to pull it off. I believe I’m in a unique situation. And I need to use those national relationships to come back home and energize South Carolina. I think that’s our difference maker.