COLUMBIA, S.C. — In a state known for its political shenanigans, the Senate race in South Carolina is living up to that reputation as campaigning between U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison enters its closing days.
This week, Harrison has been mounting a campaign to cleave voters from Graham and steer them toward a third, more conservative candidate, although that candidate is no longer actively running. The tactic could appeal to South Carolina voters who voted Graham in but have at times critiqued him as not conservative enough for the state.
Harrison has been funding digital ads heralding Constitution Party candidate Bill Bledsoe as "too conservative" to represent South Carolina. The ads link to a page funded by the state Democratic Party with the message, "We all know Lindsey Graham's changed, but beware of Bill Bledsoe," pointing out aspects of Bledsoe's platform that would actually appeal to those voters.
The ads represent part of the creative spending allowed by Harrison's gangbusters fundraising. On Sunday, the associate Democratic National Committee chairman announced he had raised $57 million in the third quarter, a record-breaking sum that sparked musings about how he could possibly spend it in the campaign's closing weeks.
The Bledsoe-related messaging has also been reflected by Harrison himself. On Monday night, he reminded MSNBC host Joy Reid "there are three people on the ballot" for the election: "It's Lindsey Graham, myself and Bill Bledsoe, who's a Constitution Party candidate. He's also listed on the ballot."
Harrison's campaign confirmed to The Associated Press that it was funding the ads and the state Democratic Party was paying for the website, calling both "standard, routine advertisements."
Harrison spokesman Guy King told AP that the campaign is simply "making sure voters know the facts" about Harrison's "two opponents on the ballot."
Bledsoe technically ended his campaign earlier this month, however, to back Graham, as Harrison began to rise in polling and fundraising. But Bledsoe acted too late to remove his name from ballots, and with the three candidates listed in alphabetical order, his name appears at the top of the list.
Third-party candidates have frequently been used as proxies to try to undermine major party opponents. This year, the Montana Republican Party funded signature gathering to help qualify a Green Party candidate in U.S. Sen. Steve Daines' reelection race, accusing Democrats of trying to "limit ballot access" to smaller political parties. Montana Democrats accused the GOP of fraudulently trying to siphon votes.
In 2018, the Arizona Republican Party aimed to portray a Green Party candidate who backed the Democratic Senate nominee, yet remained on ballots, as "too liberal." That same year, anonymous mailers supported Montana Libertarian Senate hopeful Rick Breckenridge as a "true conservative," attacking the Republican candidate Breckenridge would ultimately endorse.
During his three Senate terms, Graham has drawn primary challengers criticizing him as not being conservative enough, citing willingness to work with Democrats to advance legislative goals. A close relationship with President Donald Trump, though, has helped improve Graham's standing in the state, where support for Trump remains strong.
Bledsoe, a Spartanburg veterinarian, ran against U.S. Sen. Tim Scott in 2016 as a fusion candidate of the Constitution and Libertarian parties, hosting a series of "long-gun carrying rallies" at courthouses, carrying a Revolutionary War-era rifle to draw attention to gun restrictions.
In that contest, Bledsoe received 2% of votes cast.
According to its platform, The Constitution Party's purpose is "to restore American jurisprudence to its Biblical foundations and to limit the federal government to its Constitutional boundaries."
Even a slim margin of support from ultra-conservatives could be just what Graham needs to win over Harrison, with whom he's been shown as virtually tied in some recent polling. Without those votes, state Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick said, Harrison could be hoping that Graham can't win.
"I suspect he's hoping the opponent will siphon votes from Sen. Graham," McKissick said. "More likely, they're going for conservative voters, trying to peel off those votes from Sen. Graham."
Asked about the overall ad tactic, McKissick said the effort could betray worries within Harrison's campaign, particularly as Graham, in his role as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, maintains high national visibility this week, presiding over the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation process.
"I think it's a little disingenuous," McKissick said. "But it's definitely indicative of Jaime's campaign starting to look at the numbers, and getting a little bit desperate."