COLUMBIA, S.C. — In their first debate in a race that has shattered fundraising records and become among the more closely watched Senate contests of this cycle, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison drew multiple contrasts between their campaigns but also portrayed themselves as willing to work across the aisle to achieve legislative progress.
In his pursuit of a fourth term, Graham — chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee — also argued the case for his chief congressional goal at the moment: the confirmation of President Donald Trump's latest Supreme Court nominee.
After Harrison — an associate Democratic National Committee chairman and former lobbyist — said Saturday night that he and his wife were still paying off their student loans, Graham snapped back that, given what he’s seen of Harrison’s income from released tax returns, “You’re a multimillionaire, and you can’t pay off your student loans?”
Harrison described himself as willing to work with Republicans on a variety of issues, describing when, as state Democratic chairman, he became close friends with his GOP counterpart. He also critiqued the longtime lawmaker's previous support of 12-year term limits and added, “I do believe the ultimate term limit is in the power of the people here in South Carolina.”
In response, Graham promoted himself as a conservative unafraid to work with Democrats, mentioning issues like immigration, and telling voters, “You can limit my term on Nov. 3 if you’d like.”
From his opening statement and throughout nearly every answer of the hourlong debate, Graham worked in his support for a conservative judiciary and particularly Amy Coney Barrett, whom he called a “buffer to liberalism" he hoped “won't be treated like Kavanaugh" in her upcoming confirmation hearings.
It was Graham's fiery 2018 defense of Brett Kavanaugh that helped cement his now-close relationship with Trump, as well as renew support with some who hadn't seen Graham as conservative enough to represent South Carolina. That moment, Graham said Saturday, also riled up liberals he now says are pouring $100 million into Harrison's campaign and groups supporting him, to try to oust Graham.
“Where the hell is all this money coming from?” Graham asked. “This is about liberals hating my guts when I stood up for Kavanaugh. This is about me helping President Trump.”
Harrison, 44, castigated Graham, 65, for what he characterized as contradictory positions on whether it's appropriate to fill Supreme Court vacancies in a presidential election year.
“Senator, you said ‘use my words against me,’” Harrison said, referencing Graham's 2018 comments on the subject. “Your promise was that no judicial nominee should be approved during the last year of an election. ... How good is your word?”
Graham, pointing several times to his support of two of President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominees, said Barrett “is going to be confirmed because the president has the constitutional authority to do it.”
The ongoing pandemic also played a role, both on stage and in debate structuring. No members of the public were allowed to attend the event at Allen University, a historically Black institution in Columbia. Media and campaign staff inside were spread out and required to complete questionnaires declaring no exposure to or symptoms of coronavirus.
After several senators announced testing positive for COVID-19, Republican leaders on Saturday announced a refrain from legislative work until Oct. 19 that leadership says won't derail Barrett's hearings, set to begin Oct. 12. With two committee members recently contracting the coronavirus, Graham said Friday that senators could attend virtually.
The candidates spoke from podiums 13 feet apart. Harrison’s podium was shielded on the side closest to Graham by a plexiglass partition, something the campaign said was used in accordance with federal recommendations that anyone in close contact with someone infected with COVID-19 should quarantine for 14 days.
Both candidates say they tested negative Friday, but Graham has recently met with other Senate Republicans — several of whom have tested positive for the coronavirus — as well as with Trump, currently hospitalized with COVID-19.
“You have nothing to be afraid of, when it comes to me,” Graham said to Harrison, in his opening statement, a reference to the plexiglass.
Of his partition, Harrison said he was taking every precaution to keep himself and his loved ones safe.
“Its not just about me, it’s about the people in my life that I have to take care of, as well, my two boys, my wife, my grandma,” Harrison said.
Asked later about the number of public officials recently contracting COVID, Graham reiterated a commitment to keep the economy and government working amid the pandemic and noting, “The virus is a problem that came out of China, not Trump Tower.”
Officials with Harrison's campaign said they raised $340,000 during the debate and the hour that followed it. Graham's campaign said they “don't discuss those numbers.” The two men are next scheduled to debate Oct. 9.