WASHINGTON — When Jaime Harrison worked on Inez Tenenbaum’s 2004 campaign for Senate in South Carolina, he believed voters would reject Republican Jim DeMint’s hyperpartisan pitch to South Carolinians.
Ultimately, they did not. But what Harrison learned 15 years ago is guiding his mission now to take down Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has come to represent the current era of partisanship in South Carolina.
“Democrats win when we’re hopeful and aspirational and when we give people something to get excited about, not something to be fearful of,” Harrison told BuzzFeed News by phone last week. “The problem is that so many people in South Carolina have lost all sense of hope and given up on the American dream. What I want to do is give people in South Carolina hope again.”
He has a near-herculean task ahead of him, but if he’s successful against Graham, one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington, Harrison would be the first Democrat to win a statewide election in South Carolina since 2006 and join Republican Sen. Tim Scott as the second black senator representing the state.
Symbolically, pulling that off would represent a bridge between the end of an era of conservative white Southern Democrats and the more progressive liberal wing of the party making a serious play for the future of the South.
But that won’t be easy. Harrison has prevailed in South Carolina politics for years on his reputation as a nice guy and a political philosophy that believes in the practical over the ideological. That would be a major lift against one of President Donald Trump’s closest allies.
“The reality is that if Jaime ever got in a debate with Lindsey Graham, I don’t know if he has the chops to hit him the way he needs to be hit,” a Democratic consultant told BuzzFeed News.
DeMint, who believed that gays and unmarried pregnant women were unfit to teach in public schools, won easily in 2004. Tenenbaum was herself flawed, having distanced herself from that year’s presidential ticket, a move that angered black political advocates pushing hard for John Kerry.
Tenenbaum ran a campaign “most white Southerners” thought she needed to run to win, Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a longtime state lawmaker and political activist told the Hill in 2004.
But at the same time, Harrison formed a nonconventional idea. What if Tenenbaum’s operation did something to show voters that she and her campaign cared about bettering their situation?
Harrison settled on a free workshop for would-be first-time homeowners. It took place so long ago, Harrison hardly remembers all the details of the event he helped coordinate. But it was late in the cycle and the campaign didn’t have the resources to build it out.
“I was just testing this theory,” Harrison said in an interview with BuzzFeed News, adding that he was dubious that it was going to make a difference for Tenenbaum. “But I saw the reaction of the folks in that event that we had, and I just kind of filed it away, and thought, all right, you may want to test this out.”
Harrison infused his theory into the next 15 years of his career in politics, including as chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party beginning in 2013, and in a bid to become chair of the Democratic National Committee.
Later this month, he’ll formally launch his bid for Graham’s Senate seat, introducing himself at a rally Sept. 22 in his hometown of Orangeburg.
The event — think fish-frying, bounce houses, and face painting, “almost like a family reunion atmosphere,” Harrison said — will be a festive backdrop for Harrison, the son of a single mother who grew up in poverty, to present his vision for the future of South Carolina.
Harrison, 43, has a conventional political background, but is not taking a conventional approach in his campaign to take down Graham. He is a graduate of Yale and Georgetown Law. He rose on Capitol Hill, becoming a top strategist in House Whip Jim Clyburn’s floor operation, and was previously a lobbyist with the Podesta Group. In 2013, Harrison was named chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party and followed it up with a bid to lead the Democratic National Committee in 2017; Harrison currently serves as an associate chair at the DNC overseeing political strategy.
Harrison’s campaign is the ultimate test of his theory that South Carolinians will respond when the Democrats provide more than just messaging on bread-and-butter issues like education, housing, and the economy. Harrison’s plan to win is a leadership model that South Carolina Democrats say has been part of Harrison’s political theory for over a decade.
“I’m a big believer in it, Harrison said. “I believe it could be a game changer, and it fits with who we are and what we claim to be fighting for as a party.”
Already, Harrison and his allies argue that Harrison has always “put people over politics,” a signal that they plan to frame Harrison as the kind of leader attractive to moderates, rural and working-class communities that switched to the Republican Party and who are now disaffected by Trump.
Harrison believes South Carolinians aren’t as conservative as people assume and can be won over by plans that aren’t explicitly partisan or ideological. He said he wants voters to believe things can be different “and that our leaders will actually lead and be focused and fight for the people in the state.”
As Republicans have continually decried progressive proposals such as Medicare for All and the Democratic Party’s lurch to the left in the wake of the 2016 election as “socialism,” Harrison’s rhetoric suggests you can expect his campaign to talk about his ideas in simpler terms.
“What we are going to do in terms of our message is actually in the framing of how we talk about this race and what we want to do,” Harrison said. “It’s not going to be what we think is the Democratic thing or the best Republican thing, or the best progressive or conservative thing. It’s going to be about what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Harrison’s most prominent supporter is South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives. Clyburn leads a cluster of Harrison’s national support that remains optimistic that Harrison can actually win the seat, despite it not yet being considered competitive by nonpartisan organizations watching it closely, like the Cook Political Report.
Activists, voters, and South Carolina political strategists told BuzzFeed News that Harrison has about as good of a chance as any Democratic up-and-comer in the state. They agreed that he had served the state party at a time when it needed youth and energy to rebuild its infrastructure. One state party insider — who asked not to be identified for this story — referenced an old gospel hymn to explain why he thought brighter days were ahead in South Carolina’s Democratic politics: “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”
Clyburn’s paternal instincts also have a more religious tack.
“I believe in the Ten Commandments, but I practice an eleventh commandment: Thou shalt not pour cold water on another person’s dream,” Clyburn told BuzzFeed News in an interview.
Harrison wants to mobilize “what the smart people in Washington, DC, describe as low-propensity voters, but what those of us who operate at a different level outside the bubble call uninspired voters,” Antjuan Seawright, a state Democratic strategist and a staunch Harrison ally, said in an interview. “He has a history and a body of work and that’s why he’s positioned to do something that not many people have the possibility of doing.”
Harrison is the most well-known name in the Democratic Senate primary, and allies don’t view his opponents as serious threats. (Businessperson Gloria Bromell Tinubu, who ran unsuccessfully for the US House of Representatives in 2012 and 2014, announced her candidacy in the spring.) Seawright said that, instead, Harrison’s primary will be a gauge of his support, his campaign’s infrastructure, and his ability to connect with voters statewide.
“He has to test his connectability in order to determine his electability,” Seawright said. “Because regardless of who shows up in the primary, he’s going to need them and more to show up for the general election.”
Harrison said he saw “great parallels” between Democratic gains in the midterm elections before the 2008 presidential (Democrats won back the House) and last year’s election, and 2020.
It’s going to be up to him and his campaign, he said, to tell South Carolinians “that you can still be a round-headed boy who grew up poor to a single mom in Orangeburg and still run for the US Senate. We’re going to share that story, letting folks know that the doors of opportunity aren’t closed to them or their families.”
Harrison is taking his philosophy straight to Graham, a Navy veteran who is among Trump’s most trusted allies. Graham, who is the chair of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, was already one of the most powerful figures in Washington. Graham’s close association with Trump has only increased his stature. According to an April 2019 Winthrop University poll, Trump has a 43% approval rating in the state, which is above the national average.
Graham’s approval among Republicans and Republican-leaning voters, meanwhile, is strong at 74%, according to the April Winthrop University poll, after past years where he was threatened by more conservative primary challengers.
Harrison’s theory that his party has to have practical relevance to voters — that it has to serve in part by offering the rural areas, the very poor, and other marginalized communities basic local services — is up against a moment in which the party has struggled to define its aims amid a restructuring of the middle class in America, changing demographics, and the election of Trump.
“For me, the way we activate folks and get them out to vote is to go into these communities and roll up your sleeves and actually do things to demonstrate what your values are,” Harrison said. “It’s not good enough to say Democrats are for a living wage if at the same time we are not doing stuff in order to make sure that people can get a job that can lead to that wage. We can say we want to spark all of this homeownership, but you also have to teach people about the process by which you go about doing that.”
Betty Henderson, the former longtime chair of the Orangeburg County Democratic Party, is preaching that Harrison is qualified, comes from the community, and has lived a life of service. Henderson said she wants people to be inspired by the idea that he has always been part of the community and isn’t simply coming back for votes.
In informal conversations with top aides from nearly a half dozen 2020 presidential campaigns, while Harrison’s momentum (he raised $1.5 million to launch his campaign) is an encouraging sign, whatever synergy there is between the eventual Democratic nominee and Harrison’s campaign will be mostly dependent on the nature of Harrison’s polling against Graham in the general.
“Whoever is our nominee needs to campaign in places like South Carolina because we can elect people like Jaime Harrison,” said New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a 2020 presidential candidate with deep ties to the state who has spoken at length about the need to rebuild state parties.
The Democratic consultant, speaking to BuzzFeed News on the condition of anonymity, said Harrison is genuinely among the most likable, nicest people working in politics today, but didn’t know how that would work in an election against a pit bull like Graham.
“The general consensus is that Jaime if going to win, Jaime needs to get some balls, and I love Jaime,” the strategist said, citing recent Democratic losses in North Carolina as well as Republican tactics to depress turnout.
“If you ask black folks where their love for politics came from, it’s usually some form of service aspect. That’s not a new or interesting story,” the Democratic consultant continued. “Now, if the story becomes about how Jaime has maneuvered the cutthroat lane of politics for always being, like, a nice guy, with people understanding that he is likable but that he will fight back when he needs to, then that’s a different story.”
Henderson, though, believes Harrison has a puncher’s chance to knock off a Republican in the state.
“No, I’m confident because I know the candidate,” Henderson said. “I don’t know of him, I know the person. And believe me he’s got what it takes.”
Harrison was a fixture of last week’s 49th Annual Legislative Conference in Washington, a public policy forum hosted annually by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. On Friday night, at a fundraiser for the Collective, a political action committee supporting black Democratic candidates, Harrison delivered an abridged version of his biography that his campaign hopes will inspire people to come to the polls. He wasted little time labeling Graham as a Trump lackey, at one point calling him “the world’s most powerful golf caddie.”
Harrison asked his audience to imagine a hypothetical Fox News television chyron from the year 2021.
“I think the bottom of the ticker is going to say, ‘Donald Trump is going back to Mar-a-Lago, and Lindsey Graham is carrying his bags,” Harrison exclaimed.
Harrison paused. A few cheers and some polite applause filled the cavernous Howard Theatre before Harrison began the next line in his address.
“But in all seriousness,” Harrison went on.