At just 44 years of age, Jaime Harrison is more than two decades younger than Senator Lindsey Graham, who Harrison hopes to unseat.
South Carolina hasn’t had a Democratic Senator since 2005. Of its two sitting Republican Senators, Senator Lindsey Graham has held his seat the longest, having taken office in January 2003. Prior to Graham’s election, his seat was held by the longest-serving Republican senator in history, Strom Thurmond, who switched from the Democratic Party in the 1960s due to his opposition to civil rights.
Considering this history, it would be a remarkable upset for a Black Democrat to win Graham’s seat in the 2020 election. Yet, recent polling and an unprecedented fundraising haul suggests that just such an upset could happen. The candidate in question is Jaime Harrison, a former teacher and lifelong South Carolinian who many election watchers believe has a real shot of unseating Graham.
The rise of Jaime Harrison
Harrison was born in Orangeburg, South Carolina, to a single teenage mother. His grandparents helped raise him. Though he grew up in poverty, following high school graduation he was able to attend Yale University on a scholarship. Harrison completed a degree in political science in 1988.
In a profile in The Atlantic earlier this year, Harrison recounted how he felt being from such a poor family among so many wealthy students at the prestigious Ivy League university: “You feel like you’re a Walmart kid on Rodeo Drive.”
After finishing his degree, Harrison returned to his hometown and spent a year teaching at his former high school, Orangeburg-Wilkinson High.
Following that year, Harrison continued his education, this time at Georgetown Law in Washington DC. While studying for his law degree, Harrison also worked with the nonprofit College Summit (now Peer Forward), which helps low-income students attend college.
While in Washington, Harrison served as an aide for Representative James Clyburn, a long-serving member of the House for South Carolina. Clyburn is a respected South Carolina Democrat whose endorsement was highly sought during the Democratic primary earlier this year. Ultimately, he endorsed the current nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Following the completion of his law degree, Harrison remained in politics, working directly for Clyburn and then as a Washington lobbyist with the now-defunct Podesta Group.
In 2013, Harrison became the first African American to lead any political party in his home state when he was elected to lead the South Carolina Democratic Party.
In 2017, he briefly campaigned to become the Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), following the party’s poor performance in the 2016 election. Ultimately, he endorsed the current Chairman, Tom Perez. Since 2018, he has been an Associate Chair with the DNC.
Harrison and his wife, Marie Boyd, a law professor, currently live in Columbia, South Carolina. They have two children.
Jaime Harrison for Senate
Harrison has credited his teachers as helping to raise him out of poverty to achieve the success he has had so far. It is due to that fact and his brief time as a high school teacher that Harrison has made addressing poverty and providing better education key campaign issues.
According to a 2017 policy brief by Children’s Trust of South Carolina, 22% of families (and 42% of single-parent families) live in poverty in the state, including nearly 300,000 children. In 2019, South Carolina was tied for the 10th highest poverty rate in the country.
Harrison believes improving statewide education – South Carolina’s public school system consistently ranks in the bottom 10 of all states – is a fundamental way to address poverty in South Carolina.
As a means of addressing these dual issues, Harrison has vowed to “increase funding for affordable housing and push back against bureaucratic zoning laws.” His campaign says he is also dedicated to “boosting support for underfunded schools, retooling the teaching pipeline, and closing the digital divide.”
Along with addressing poverty and education, Harrison has vowed that as a senator he will work to ensure “clean air and water, child care, affordable housing, and a strong social safety net for those who need help getting back on their feet.”
At just 44 years of age, Harrison is more than two decades younger than Senator Graham, who Harrison hopes to unseat. The Democrat has positioned himself as someone who is more in touch with both young voters and the state’s working poor than the incumbent. He has also criticized Graham as being more concerned with pleasing President Donald Trump than helping South Carolinians.
Still, Graham is one of the most powerful and long-serving Republican Congressmen, sitting on multiple committees, including serving as Chairman for the Committee on the Judiciary, which oversees judicial nominations. It was thus unsurprising that when Harrison first entered the race, he trailed Graham considerably. Much has changed in recent months.
Recent polling has the two candidates consistently tied or within one point of each other. More concerning for Graham has been Harrison’s impressive fundraising. On October 11, it was reported that Harrison, having pulled in US$57 million from donors, broke the record for the highest quarterly fundraising total in United States Senate history.
That news followed an initial debate in which Harrison criticized Graham harshly, saying Graham had “betrayed the trust of the people” of South Carolina. Furthermore, a clip from that debate of Harrison chastising Graham after the incumbent called Democrats “nuts” went viral on October 4.
Prior to a second debate, Graham refused to take a COVID-19 test, even though many Republicans in his orbit have tested positive recently, including Trump and Senator Mike Lee, another member of the Judicial Committee. Many believe Graham refused testing because if he was positive he would have had to delay the Supreme Court hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, which began October 12.
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