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In South Carolina, Longtime GOP Senator Faces Strong Challenge From A Democrat

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As Democrats try to win seats in the Senate, they are rooting for Jaime Harrison in South Carolina. Several polls show him closing in on Republican Lindsey Graham, who hasn't faced a credible Democratic challenger since he was first elected in 2002. South Carolina Public Radio's Victoria Hansen reports.

VICTORIA HANSEN, BYLINE: Jaime Harrison is running on his personal story. The 44-year-old grew up poor in rural South Carolina. He was born to a teenage mother and raised by his grandparents.

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JAIME HARRISON: I grew up in this house. My grandparents didn't have much, but they raised me right, taught me what most South Carolinians know. Character counts. So does hard work and helping others when you can.

HANSEN: Harrison earned a scholarship to Yale, came back to his community to teach and became the first African American to chair the South Carolina Democratic Party. He says he's running for the U.S. Senate because Lindsey Graham is out of touch with the state's needs. Nationally, Graham has become a polarizing political figure, blasting Donald Trump before he was elected then becoming one of the president's most outspoken defenders, especially during the impeachment. Those who want Graham gone haven't been shy about helping Harrison fund his campaign. The newcomer has raised $29 million, nearly matching the incumbent's 30.9 million. Much of the money has come from small donors online, although Graham says big-money Democrats are also after him.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Democrat Jaime Harrison is spending a million dollars a week to buy a Senate seat. Where's the money coming from? Ninety-three percent from out of state; 93% from Chuck Schumer and liberals in Hollywood.

HANSEN: While touring a facility that makes medical supplies in Harrison's hometown, Graham said Harrison's views aren't mainstream in the state.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: My opponent is the most liberal person, in my view, to ever seek public office in South Carolina. As a Democrat, he's embraced every radical agenda item there is.

HANSEN: Meanwhile, Harrison has focused much of his campaign on pocketbook issues as he did during this virtual town hall with young people.

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HARRISON: What kind of challenges has student loan debt posed to you or your peers?

HANSEN: Now polls show Harrison gaining momentum. But can he win a heavily Republican state where a Democrat hasn't been elected to the U.S. Senate in more than 20 years? Graham was easily reelected in 2014, and President Trump also cruised to victory here. Still, Shirley Nilsen of Charleston is worried about Graham's future.

SHIRLEY NILSEN: It's going to be real interesting. I hope he's going to pull it through.

HANSEN: She fears Graham could lose because of all the money Democrats have raised. He has her vote.

NILSEN: The things that the Republicans believe in - you can't put a price tag on that.

HANSEN: One challenge for Harrison - he's just not that well-known. Mike VanBreyer is another voter in Charleston.

MIKE VANBREYER: I need to learn a little bit more about him, but it just seems like it's time.

HANSEN: It's time, he says, for Graham to go.

VANBREYER: He's more into national politics versus here in the community, so I think a fresh face would do South Carolina really well.

HANSEN: But Graham's transformation into one of Trump's closest allies is a good thing for voters like Joseph Page, who hasn't always been happy with Graham.

JOSEPH PAGE: I've seen a change in him over the past couple of years, which has been for the positive, in my opinion.

HANSEN: Democrats have made some inroads here recently, flipping a U.S. House seat in the Charleston area for the first time in 40 years. And African American turnout could make a difference. One-third of the voting age population is Black. If Harrison does win, it would be historic, making South Carolina the first to have two Black senators serving at the same time.

For NPR News, I'm Victoria Hansen in Charleston, S.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS SONG, "SAN FRANCISCO KNIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.