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Sen. Lindsey Graham Faces Competitive Race In South Carolina

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Republican Senator Ben Sasse spoke at length about the president this week. He was on a call with constituents in his state of Nebraska. Sasse said the president, quote, "kisses dictators' butts." He said the president flirts with white supremacists. He said the president treats the presidency like a business opportunity. Here is audio of the Republican senator obtained by the Washington Examiner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEN SASSE: The debate is not going to be, Ben Sasse, why were you so mean to Donald Trump? It's going to be, what the heck were any of us thinking that selling a TV-obsessed, narcissistic individual to the American people was a good idea?

INSKEEP: Senator Sasse also said he believes that President Trump is likely to lose this election and - this was his real concern - take the Senate down with him. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis has been following this year's Senate elections. Hi there, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: Republicans do have a 53-seat majority in the Senate, which means they could even lose a couple and still keep it. Are they in serious risk of losing that majority?

DAVIS: Yes, because it's getting harder and harder for Republicans because the Senate races in play for Democrats just keep expanding as we get closer to the election, while the map has never really expanded for Republicans. They have just one likely pick-up in Alabama. That's where incumbent Senator Doug Jones is unlikely to be able to overcome the conservative lean of his state in a presidential election year. Trump's still very popular there.

If you presume Jones loses - and most election forecasters do - Democrats would need to net gain four seats. And that would just get them the smallest of 50-seat majorities. And that would also be dependent upon Joe Biden winning the White House because in a tight Senate, the vice president breaks that tie. So...

INSKEEP: Right.

DAVIS: ...It's still a pretty tall order for Democrats. It would require defeating a lot of veteran incumbents, which is why Republicans are holding out hope that even if Trump does, in fact, lose, they can hold the Senate just with a smaller majority.

INSKEEP: So what are the races that will decide if the Senate flips or not?

DAVIS: There's always been a trio of states that Democrats think they have the best chance in. That's Arizona, Colorado and Maine. North Carolina has also been really competitive. But Republicans thought they recently caught a break there because the Democrat in the race, Cal Cunningham, had been caught up in some personal scandals involving extramarital relationships. But, Steve, it hasn't done anything to dent his lead in the polls, so the conventional wisdom there not always applying.

The big picture in all of these states - President Trump. He's unpopular. He could lose all of them. And it's just really hard for a Senate candidate to outperform the top of the ticket anymore. In 2016, not a single state split their tickets between who they voted for senator and president, which party. And broadly speaking, in wave elections - and this could be a wave election - competitive races overwhelmingly break in one party's favor. So those fundamentals are benefiting Democrats this time around.

INSKEEP: We've been watching these Supreme Court hearings for Amy Coney Barrett all week. It's been presumed we know how the vote is going to go...

DAVIS: Yep.

INSKEEP: ...In the Senate and that the senators are talking to the country in an election year. Is that having any effect on the Senate races?

DAVIS: It has in one clear way, money. The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the politics around filling this seat has fueled so much money into Democratic campaigns that there really isn't an under-resourced Senate campaign out there. One great example of that is in South Carolina, where the Democratic candidate just set a record for the most fundraising ever. And our colleague, Don Gonyea, has been there looking into that race.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Make no doubt, South Carolina is a solidly Republican state. And since being elected in 2002, Senator Lindsey Graham has won easily every time. But this year, Democrats see an opportunity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Fired up.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Ready to go.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Fired up.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Ready to go.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Fired up.

GONYEA: This is a Democratic Party get-out-the-vote event in the parking lot of a shopping center in North Charleston this week. That chant actually originated here during the Obama campaign in '08. Democrats think Senate candidate Jaime Harrison can build the same coalition Obama did, including independents and even moderate Republicans.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

JAIME HARRISON: I grew up in this house. My grandparents didn't have much, but they raised me right.

GONYEA: Some Harrison ads simply introduced him. He's African American. He won a scholarship to Yale. After law school, he was a congressional aide, state party chair and a lobbyist. He's a polished campaigner. But a big reason this race is competitive is Senator Graham himself. Back in 2016, Graham was running for president and called Donald Trump unfit for office, a religious bigot and more. The Harrison campaign has ads out featuring Graham saying all that back then and now saying this.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

LINDSEY GRAHAM: No, I don't think he's a xenophobic, race-baiting, religious bigot. I like the president. I am, like, the happiest dude in America right now.

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: Democrats from far and wide have been sending dollars to the Harrison campaign. In the third quarter, they shattered a Senate campaign fundraising record, hitting $57 million, blowing past the previous mark set two years ago by Beto O'Rourke in Texas. Graham has been going on Fox News, pleading for donations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRAHAM: Every liberal in the country wants to take me out - lindseygraham.com. If you want to help me, help me by going to my website.

GONYEA: The senator who spent this week chairing the Supreme Court confirmation hearings even alluded to Harrison's fundraising success during those proceedings when the topic of campaign finance came up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRAHAM: I don't know what's going on out there. But I can tell you there's a lot of money being raised in this campaign. I'd like to know where the hell some of it is coming from.

GONYEA: Early voting in the state is underway. In the Charleston area, people have been casting ballots at the local sports coliseum. Fifty-four-year-old Michael Connell (ph) is a police officer who describes himself as an independent but conservative. He voted for Lindsey Graham.

MICHAEL CONNELL: He supports the police. I know that for sure. The Supreme Court is a big issue. And even though I'm independent, I would prefer that the Republicans hold onto the Senate.

GONYEA: He says he doesn't doubt the polls that show it's a close race. The Supreme Court is a motivator for anti-Graham voters, too. Four years ago, Graham said it was right to deny an Obama court pick in an election year. He said repeatedly he'd do the exact same thing under President Trump. Of course, he broke that promise with no apology. Voter Melinda Nickelson (ph) works as a real estate agent. She's a Democrat. Her choice in the Senate race?

MELINDA NICKELSON: I'm voting for Jaime Harrison.

GONYEA: I asked her if she's ever voted for Senator Graham in the past.

NICKELSON: I have. I voted for him every time. But, you know, I'm just not pleased with what's happening now. And he seems to be Trump's minion. And I don't like that.

GONYEA: Such former Graham supporters are why this race is close. Now that he's courting hardcore conservatives and the Trump base, its many longtime moderate backers, be they Republican or Democrat, who are feeling snubbed. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Charleston.

INSKEEP: OK. We're back with congressional correspondent Susan Davis. I have to ask, are Republicans fearful of losing even South Carolina in the Senate?

DAVIS: They are. You know, President Trump is an anchor there like he is everywhere else. Although, he's still expected to win the state. And Republicans are hopeful that's enough to keep Graham alive there. But as Ben Sasse said, 2020 could be a blue tsunami. And if it is, that's what it would take to defeat an incumbent like Graham in a state as conservative as South Carolina.

INSKEEP: And we'll underline the other thing that Ben Sasse said, that who controls the Senate is an extremely important question, especially if the presidency were to change hands.

DAVIS: You better believe it.

INSKEEP: Susan, thank you very much.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Susan Davis.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "WEIRD CAT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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