Graham steps in 'precarious' spotlight for Supreme Court confirmation during tough reelection fight

Graham predicts Judge Amy Coney Barrett will be confirmed this year

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman lays out his timeline for Supreme Court nomination on ‘Hannity’

As Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., gears up to lead the Supreme Court battle in Washington, back home in South Carolina he's in the fight of his political life.

Jaime Harrison, a former Democratic party official who is trying to run as a nonpartisan in the conservative-titling state, is in a virtual tie with Graham — a vast turnaround from the senator's last reelection when he sailed to a 16-point victory over his Democratic challenger in 2014.

Harrison is a prolific fundraiser who has blanketed the airwaves with so much advertising against the senator that Graham has made televised appeals for money during television interviews. The Cook Political Report just this week moved the race from leaning Republican to "toss up." 

Harrison has been hitting Graham hard on his character, integrity and priorities. And Graham's Supreme Court flip-flop on confirming justices during an election year has played into Harrison's narrative that Graham's word can't be trusted. 

"That's why you have this neck-and-neck race that you typically wouldn't find to be the case in a state as red as South Carolina," said Todd Shaw, associate professor of political science and African American Studies at the University of South Carolina.

Voting is already underway in South Carolina, but for those on the fence, Graham is about to take on the role of a lifetime. Starting Monday he'll kick off confirmation hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett as chairman of the Judiciary Committee.


He's announced an ambitious timeline to get President Trump's third pick on the high court before the Nov. 3 election — which will also determine whether the three-term GOP senator is out of a job.

“It’s a bit precarious because this race has become nationalized in some key ways," Shaw said of Graham's spotlight. 

Harrison is the former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, a former lobbyist and a Democratic National Committee associate chairman. He's driven home a theme of "What happened to Lindsey Graham?" One ad plays Graham condemning Trump as a "race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot" before the 2016 election and then saying the opposite after Trump won the presidency and Graham went on to become the president's golf partner and staunch ally.

Graham has represented South Carolina in the Senate since 2003 and prior to that he served 10 years in the U.S. House, where he was an impeachment manager in the trial against then-President Bill Clinton. He's served in the Air Force and Air National Guard.

Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison speaks during the South Carolina U.S. Senate debate with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., at Allen University in Columbia, S.C., Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020. (Joshua Boucher/The State via AP)

All eyes will be on Graham's leadership next week and his handling of the extremely controversial confirmation hearings in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“It certainly puts a spotlight on him," said Danielle Vinson, a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. "And given that South Carolina is still a Republican state and to the extent that he finds himself defending Judge Barrett, and trying to be supportive of her, I think that plays well with a good part of the state."

But Vinson warned against Graham delivering another "Oscar-worthy performance" like his angry outburst during the Justice Brett Kavanaugh hearing when he accused Democrats of trying to destroy a good man's life. The eruption scored big praise among the conservative base but turned off some independents and women who were concerned by the sexual assault allegations from high school leveled by Christine Blasey Ford.

"He probably wants to avoid the histrionics that we saw in the Kavanaugh hearing in an effort to not alienate independent voters," Vinson said. "But if he doesn't have any missteps along the way, I think that it can be a positive for him. And I also think they have to be careful with the coronavirus issues. If it looks like they're doing things on that committee that are unsafe, that's also not going to play well in parts of South Carolina.”

Graham backed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's move in 2016 to block Senate confirmation hearings on Merrick Garland in the last year of President Obama's presidency. He told Democrats at the time to "use my words against me" if the Supreme Court vacancy should happen during an election year of a Republican president.

He reaffirmed his opposition to confirming a Supreme Court justice during an election year position in 2018. “If an opening comes in the last year of President Trump’s term, and the primary process has started, we’ll wait till the next election," Graham said during the 2018 Atlantic Festival.

Graham's about-face decision to hold confirmation hearings just days before the presidential election came up during the Senate debate Saturday. Harrison accused Graham of breaking his trust with voters: "How good is your word?"

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., looks through notes during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020, to examine the FBI "Crossfire Hurricane" investigation. (Stefani Reynolds/Pool via AP)

Harrison sided with Senate Democrats in wanting the Supreme Court seat to be decided after the election and said the Senate should instead be focused on passing another coronavirus relief bill.

But Graham has doubled down on the confirmation of Barrett as a way to solidify his support among the conservative base, which has been leery of Graham for his maverick bipartisan streak and votes to confirm two Obama justices.

"All I can say is that Amy Barrett is highly qualified," Graham said at Saturday's debate. "I'm the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. The president has every right to do this, and if you're counting on Mr. Harrison to ever vote for a conservative judge, you're making a mistake of high proportion. You can count on me for conservative judges."


Graham says Democrats changed the game the way they went after Kavanaugh and he wants a civilized and safe process for Barrett. 

"Democrats will have plenty of time to ask her hard, relevant questions," Graham told "Hannity" this week. "If they try to destroy her, it will blow up in their face like it did with Kavanaugh. I'm excited about the hearings I want every American to see Amy Barrett and how qualified she is."

If he's successful in getting Barrett voted out of the committee by his desired date of Oct. 22, he'd seal his legacy of cementing the high court's conservative tilt just days before his election. 

"It will be a tremendous accomplishment for President Trump and our country to have Amy Barrett on the Supreme Court," Graham said. "It's going to happen."

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