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South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham holds off stiff challenge from Jaime Harrison, NBC News projects

The South Carolina Senate race drew millions of dollars to the state in its most competitive race in years.
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Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has held on to his seat in South Carolina, according to an NBC News projection, defeating Democrat Jaime Harrison in a race that broke fundraising records and drew national attention to a reliably red state.

With 91 percent of the vote counted, Graham was leading by 56.3 percent to Harrison's 42.3 percent, a significantly wider margin than what many pre-election polls were projecting.

"All I can say is this has been overwhelming. I have never been challenged like this," Graham said in his victory speech Tuesday night.

"I've had two calls already, one from President Trump," Graham continued. "He's going to win. To all the pollsters out there, you have no idea what you're doing. And all the liberals in California and New York, you wasted a lot of money. This is the worst return on investment in the history of American politics."

Harrison raised more than $100 million, an enormous amount for a South Carolina race, bringing in $57 million in the third quarter alone and spooking some Republicans in the state.

Graham raised around $70 million, also breaking a third-quarter record for a Republican Senate candidate, with $27 million raised.

Harrison, 44, who is Black, was born to a teenage mother and raised by his grandparents in a mobile home in Orangeburg. He got his start in politics working for Rep. Jim Clyburn before going on to become a lobbyist and later leading the South Carolina Democratic Party.

"We proved that public office is not a lifetime job and that people are willing to hold our leaders accountable. We proved that there is no such thing as red or blue states," Harrison said in his concession speech. "We proved that a new South is rising. Tonight only slowed us down."

Image: Jamie Harrison
Democratic Senate candidate Jaime Harrison addresses supporters during a drive-in rally in North Charleston, S.C., on Oct. 17.Logan Cyrus / AFP - Getty Images

Graham had faced tough re-elections before, fending off primary challengers from the right who disapproved of his reputation for bipartisanship. He won his previous general election competitions by double digits.

This time, it was Graham's closeness to President Donald Trump that made him a top national target. For much of the 2016 Republican presidential primary, Graham warned the party about Trump, calling him a "race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot." He quickly pivoted once Trump was sworn into office, becoming one of the president's most impassioned defenders on Capitol Hill.

Harrison had looked to capitalize on Graham's 180-degree turn, painting him as untrustworthy and an opportunist. The Harrison campaign and outside groups blanketed the airwaves with video clips of Graham's past comments about Trump next to his current-day praise of the president.

In his concession speech, Harrison pointed to Graham's past reputation of reaching across the aisle, telling his supporters that "I hope he will maintain a spirit of cooperation that he is known for."

Graham, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, spent the last few weeks of the campaign in the spotlight, holding hearings for Amy Coney Barrett's nomination to the Supreme Court after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Graham touted Trump's appointment of three Supreme Court justices, hoping that a conservative court would bring home some disaffected Republicans he needed to win the race.

Harrison bet big on Graham's unpopularity among certain segments of the GOP, coupled with a growing population of more liberal white transplants, as well as the Democratic Party's Black base in South Carolina, to put him over the edge.

Harrison and several Democratic outside groups ran ads in the final days of the campaign touting Bill Bledsoe, a third-party candidate, as "too conservative" in an effort to shave off some support from Graham among unsatisfied Republicans.

Bledsoe, who had dropped out of the race and endorsed Graham but not in time for his name to be removed from the ballot, criticized Harrison's tactic as "deceptive, underhanded and wrong."

Alluding to the unusual competitiveness of the race, Graham joked that "tonight, the 2022 race for Senator [Tim] Scott begins," directing his supporters to his Republican colleague's website to make donations.