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Southern Democrats look to Harris for spark in Senate races

Democrats say the vice presidential pick could boost Black turnout to 2008 levels, making them more competitive in a handful of key Senate races.
Jaime Harrison is running for U.S. Senate, challenging Lindsey Graham in the 2020 election.
Jaime Harrison is running for U.S. Senate from South Carolina, challenging Lindsey Graham in the 2020 election.Mark Makela / for NBC News

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden's selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate has won widespread praise from rank-and-file Democrats who have hailed her as a historic, trail-blazing choice. But Democratic candidates running in some crucial races see Biden's choice of a Black and Indian woman as something more important: a new motivating factor in their party's bid to win control of the Senate.

Democratic candidates in states with large Black populations say the Biden-Harris ticket could give them a big down-ballot electoral boost in November, and their Republican challengers are taking notice already with attacks against her.

Republicans currently hold a slim 53-47 majority in the Senate, and some Democrats believe Harris could make a real impact in states like North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia — all races where they face incumbent Republicans. It could even help the party's incumbent in Alabama, where Doug Jones is fighting an uphill battle to keep his seat.

Harris is not unfamiliar with those Southern states, having made nearly 50 trips to the region over the past several years to campaign for her own presidential effort and for Democratic candidates in the midterms, including former gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Jones in Alabama.

In South Carolina, Democratic Senate nominee Jaime Harrison, who is running against GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, said Harris “is going to have a tremendous impact" in his state.

“Having a Black woman to be a voice in the room means so much to voters, particularly in the South,” he told NBC News in a phone interview.

In South Carolina, more than a million people of color are registered to vote, nearly a third of the 3.3 million registered voters. Harrison said that Harris, who visited the state 16 times in the Democratic primary, knows the issues facing the state, including the “corridor of shame,” a series of low-income school districts along I-95.

Biden's resounding victory in the South Carolina primary in February — he won 61 percent of the Black vote, according to NBC News' exit polls — served as the springboard to the nomination

For his part, Graham called Harris “smart, aggressive” and “a formidable opponent” on Twitter before seeking to paint her as too far left for the state, saying that she has “fully bought into the Democratic Party’s very liberal agenda.”

But Friday morning Graham was one of the few Republicans who publicly rejected the racist attacks against her floated by the president that she, the daughter of immigrants, isn’t eligible to be vice president. Graham tweeted she is “unequivocally an American citizen.”

In Alabama, the pick of Harris has given a glimmer of hope to Jones, who told MSNBC this week that there had been “a ripple of excitement all the way from Mobile to Huntsville" about "Joe’s pick and my friend Kamala Harris.”

Jones won the seat in a special election in 2017 by just 1.5 percent — barely defeating Republican Roy Moore, who was dogged by accusations of sexual misconduct from several women when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s.

But what put Jones over the top in an overwhelmingly Republican state was almost total support from Black women.

“Black women voters have been critical for us in the past and are his biggest base and our most consistent voters,” an aide to Jones’ campaign told NBC News. Ninety-eight percent of Black women — 17 percent of the electorate — voted for Jones in 2017, according to the Brookings Institution.

Minyon Moore, a Democratic strategist who advised Biden on his vice presidential pick, said that the presumptive nominee has long maintained that helping down-ballot Democrats was critical for the fall campaign.

“All of the Democratic candidates are going to be thrilled because they have two people who understand the importance of party, will swing the door wide open and give these candidates coattails,” Moore said, noting that Harris is also a prolific fundraiser. Biden had his best fundraising day after he announced Harris as his running mate.

Team Biden is aiming to surpass voting levels in the 2008 election, when Black voter turnout reached a 40-year high.

In North Carolina, a critical battleground state for both the presidential and Senate contests, voter turnout jumped 8 percent in 2008, in large part because of Black and young voters. With the election of Barack Obama, Black turnout also increased in other Southern states, including Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi — all states with Senate races this year.

Overall voter turnout also increased in 2016, but mostly due to increased white turnout. Black voter turnout dropped by 7 percent.

Dr. J. Michael Bitzer, a professor at Catawba College in North Carolina, studies election data in the state. He says Democrats can expect a boost in turnout, especially among Black women.

“If this were a ‘normal year,’ it might come close but maybe not exceed” the record-breaking turnout when Obama was on the ticket. “But we have this factor of Donald Trump and the negative partisanship towards him among Democrats. This may be the extra fuel needed to reach those numbers.”

Other Southern Republican incumbents have begun lobbing attacks against Harris.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia is depicting Harris — and her opponents — as dangerous. She is facing a fellow Republican, Rep. Doug Collins, as well as several Democratic candidates, including Raphael Warnock, a pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, in November, with a runoff likely needed to decide the winner.

Loeffler has attacked Warnock and Collins for their work on criminal justice issues, seeking to tie them to Harris.

“Thanks to the efforts of career politicians like Kamala Harris and Doug Collins, violent criminals are back on the streets and continue terrorizing communities in Georgia and across the country,” Stephen Lawson, Loeffler communications director, said in a statement.

Harris has a reputation in the party as being willing to help fellow Democrats. The day before she was chosen as Biden’s running mate, she urged her 14.8 million followers on Twitter to donate to Warnock’s campaign.

Moore said that Harris was already one of the most requested surrogates for Democratic candidates, adding that her selection as vice president has generated a buzz that she thinks will translate into votes.

“I mean the excitement around them right now is something we anticipated, but we didn’t anticipate it at this level,” Moore said of the Biden-Harris ticket.