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Transcript: Into the Fight for Lindsey Graham's Seat

The full episode transcript for Into the Fight for Lindsey Graham's Seat.
Chris Dilts / for NBC News/MSNBC


Into America

Into the Fight for Lindsey Graham's Seat

Trymaine Lee: It's a chilly Saturday afternoon. And the sky is bright in Greenville, South Carolina.

John Rhodes: You know, we had a little bit of sun the other day for Thursday. And as soon as it hit, it melted. So there really was not any accumulation whatsoever. You know?

Lee: John Rhodes is messing with his GPS as he sets his route through town.

Rhodes: See Alaska Drive. No.

Lee: Our producer Preeti Varathan spent the day with him.

Preeti Varathan: Where are we headed, John?

Rhodes: We're gonna go to Alaska Avenue, which is in the downtown part of Greenville, off Lawrence Road (PH). Okee dokee.

Gps: Take next right.

Lee: John works as a hospital lab technician here in Greenville. He's in his mid 40s, a Navy veteran. And he's lived in South Carolina most of his life. Today, he's out canvassing for his state's upcoming U.S. Senate race, (BACKGROUND VOICE) but it's been a minute--

Rhodes: It's been quite a while since I've actually been back involved in the political arena or theater, whichever you might wanna call it.

Gps: Next left.

Rhodes: So it's kinda like, you know, getting back in the groove of things. The last time I canvassed was around 2008. It was for the Ron Paul campaign. And then before then, John McCain when he was runnin' in 2000.

Lee: John has always canvassed for Republicans. But he's spending his Saturday driving around in his blue Volkswagen Jetta campaigning for someone he never thought he would.

Varathan: How does it feel to be canvassing for a Democrat? (LAUGH)

Rhodes: I don't know. I didn't think I would be doing it. (MOTOR) But again, never say never. Things change. And situations change. And I'm happy that I'm one of those that (UNINTEL)--

Lee: Greenville is a city of about 70,000 people in the northwest part of South Carolina. It's in a red county in a red state. John is tryin' to make a dent in all that red. Today, John has a mission. (DOORBELL)

Rhodes: Hi. Are you Mr. Lomax (PH)?

Lee: Unseat South Carolina's long-standing Republican senator, Lindsey Graham.

Rhodes: Hi Miss (UNINTEL). My name is John Rhodes. I'm from the Greenville County Democratic caucus. Senator Lindsey Graham, you know, is the Republican incumbent senator.

Lee: And let his neighbors (BACKGROUND VOICE) know who he thinks they should vote for this November instead, a black Democrat named Jaime Harrison. (MUSIC)

Rhodes: We have a great man running this year. He's a Democrat. His name is Jaime Harrison. And we encourage you to look at him. He's gonna be doin' some events here in the upstate comin' up. Come out and talk, and get to know him. And we're lookin' to really set some change for here in the upstate. So we appreciate it. Thank you. (INAUDIBLE)--

Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee. And this is Into America, a podcast about politics, about policy, and the power that both have in shaping the lives of the American people. And today, we're going into South Carolina. The primary might be over. But state electoral politics are just starting to heat up.

For the first time ever, Republican Lindsey Graham is facing a real challenge to his U.S. Senate seat. We're here to find out whether a Democratic newcomer can take on a fixture of the Grand Old Party. And let me just make something clear. This is a long shot. But it's a race Jaime Harrison believes he can win.

Rhodes: Lindsey Graham's gonna lose this race. He is going to lose this race--

Lee: You say that with a lot of confidence.

Rhodes: Oh. I know it. I feel it.

Lee: Lindsey Graham is a power player. After serving four terms in the House of Representatives, Graham won his first Senate race in 2002. He was reelected in 2008, and again in 2014. And after 18 years in the Senate, he looms large. He sits on the Appropriations Committee, the Committee on Foreign Relations. And he's chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He's visible.

Host: Joining me now is Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. (LAUGH) Senator, welcome back to Meet the Press.

Lee: A fixture on the Sunday morning shows. Graham is also known for his friendship with another prominent Republican, the late Arizona Senator John McCain. They were so close that McCain even had a nickname for Graham. He called (APPLAUSE) him Little Jerk.

John Mccain: And I know that Little Jerk Lindsey Graham is around here somewhere, (LAUGHTER) 'cause it's (INAUDIBLE)--

Lee: And when McCain died in 2018, Graham delivered a heartfelt tribute on the Senate floor.

Lindsey Graham: He could be tough. But the joy that you received from being with him will sustain you for a lifetime. And I am so lucky to have been in his presence. He taught me that principle and compromise are not mutually exclusive. And the foundation of a great person, as well as great nation.

Lee: To John Rhodes, who's now out canvassing for a Democrat, McCain was the ideal leader.

Rhodes: This is a man who served his country honorably. He was a POW in the Vietnam War. He went through hell. And he had the, I say ability. But sometimes I think it was more of a gift. He had the gift to reach across the aisle. He didn't care what other people thought.

And I don't say that he didn't care about your feelings or thoughts. But if his convictions and his passions knew that he was goin' down the right road, he followed 'em. That let you know what kind of politician and leader he was. That's what I wanna see return. (MUSIC) I want that passion. Because that man loved his country.

Lee: John identifies himself as an independent. He's a gun owner. But he'd be open to the government (BACKGROUND VOICE) banning automatic assault weapons. He thinks there should be limits on abortion, but also says it should be legal and safe. And he followed his own path in 2016.

Rhodes: I could not vote for the top two. I just, I was--

Varathan: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton--

Rhodes: Exactly. I, you know, be honest, I wrestled with that. I really did. Because when Donald Trump came on the scene, I'll admit I kinda liked it at first because it was like a new style. It wasn't the typical I'm gonna get up. I'm gonna (UNINTEL). You know? It was more off the cuff. You know? But as time went by, just something wasn't right. You know? Things didn't add up. And then some of the things that were done, the mud-slinging and so forth, it just didn't sit well with me.

Lee: Even though he didn't vote for Trump, John has been a loyal supporter of Graham's for years.

Rhodes: Yes I have. I voted for him when he was in the House, and when he ran for the Senate in 2002, and also in the last senatorial race. I did. I thought he was great. (MUSIC)

Lee: John saw Graham as an independent Republican voice, much like McCain. He respected Graham's opposition to the Bush Administration's use of water boarding, and his belief in climate change.

President Bush: I'm not a scientist. And I've got the grades to prove it. (LAUGH) But I've talked to the climatologists of the world. And 90% of them are telling me that greenhouse gas effect is real. That we're heating up the planet.

Rhodes: And especially once Senator McCain was alive, he was, to me, he was more bipartisan. And now it's, like, I don't even recognize that word anymore. He has very much submerged himself in the Trump era. You know, it's almost like it's more than an act of loyalty. It's almost, I don't know if he's in a trance. I don't know what it is. He was on Fox and Friends recently. And he's wearin' a Trump jacket. So I guess he's now the official model of Trump apparel. (LAUGH) I know Victoria's Secret--

Lee: John's not wrong about Lindsey Graham's changing allegiances. During the 2016 presidential race, Graham was one of the most vocal party critics of then candidate Trump.

Graham: I'm not gonna try to get into the mind of Donald Trump. Because I don't think there's a whole lot of space there. I think he's a kook. I think he's crazy. I think he's unfit for office.

Lee: Back then, Graham's contempt for Trump was so great that he refused to back him, even when he became the Republican nominee. And he didn't even vote for him. He voted for a little known third party candidate. But less than a year into President Trump's first term, Graham changed his tune. Here he is in November of 2017--

Graham: You know what concerns me about the American press is this endless, endless attempt to label the guy as some kinda kook, not fit to be president.

Rhodes: If you enter in the game of politics, you stay on your core values. You stay with your passions in life. We're livin' in a era now that I think a lot of congressmen feel like if they're not loyal to the executive branch, then they fear not being reelected and so forth.

And I just wanna tell the American people, and people in politics, your loyalty is not to the president. Your loyalty is to the constitution. When I serve my country, we don't raise our right hand and pledge allegiance and give allegiance to the president. Now granted, he is the commander in chief.

But you pledge yourself to the constitution, to defend it from not just with terror and threats from out, but from within, foreign and domestic. These things is what keep us together. You know? As a free republic. It gives us the opportunity to have free speech. It gives us the opportunity to vote. And when you start pledging loyalty to a man and not to an idea, (MUSIC) we're headed in a very dark place.

Lee: So for John, a guy who has cast his vote for the Republican ticket, time and time again, the only choice is to give someone new a shot.

Rhodes: He's a breath of fresh air. He's invigorating. He gives off a sense of energy, a sense of vibrance. I like that.

Lee: That someone new is Jaime Harrison.

Rhodes: I see change. I don't see Democrat. I see change, progressive change.

Lee: More on Harrison after the break. (MUSIC) So who is this 44 year old black Democrat, the one John's canvassing for who's trying to unseat Lindsey Graham? Who is Jaime Harrison?

Harrison: Being born to a 16 year old mom, and raised by my grandparents in Orangeburg, we made due with the opportunities we created for ourselves. Because that's all we had.

Lee: As he says in an ad he made to introduce himself to voters, he grew up in the small city of Orangeburg, South Carolina. And he didn't have much. But he was a good student. He worked his way to Yale University and Georgetown Law School. He's been a teacher, a lobbyist, and an aide to iconic South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn. He was also the first black chair of the state's Democratic party. Does Harrison really think he has a shot at winning in November? I sat down with him in Charleston to find out.

Now, politics is a tough business--

Harrison: It is.

Lee: --how did growin' up like that prepare you?

Harrison: Many times, folks come up to me, and was, like, "Man, you're runnin' against Lindsey Graham? That's really tough, and this and that." And I look at 'em. And I'm kinda confused. (NOISE) I mean, I know what tough is like, (LAUGH) right? Tough is like when you don't know when the next meal's comin' from, right? Tough is when you are no longer stayin' in your house. And you're crashin' at other friends' house, and tryin' to figure out where I'm gonna lay my head the next day. That's tough.

Lee: So take us back to that moment when you decided to actually run for Senate.

Harrison: Part of the conversation started in the Kavanaugh hearings. And you know, listen. I did not expect Lindsey Graham to vote against Judge Kavanaugh. I mean, he was a Republican nominee, nominated by a Republican president. Lindsey's a Republican senator in the United States Senate. And I've been in politics long enough to know how that works, right? That's (LAUGH) gonna happen. But for me, the thing that was sorta the straw that broke the camel's back was the treatment of Dr. Ford.

Dr. Ford: I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified. I am here because I believe it is my civic (MUSIC) duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school. I (INAUDIBLE)--

Lee: In September of 2018, Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, telling her story of a young Brett Kavanaugh, who she alleges sexually assaulted her in high school. Senator Graham didn't ask Ford any questions during the morning session. But when Kavanaugh was called in the afternoon, Graham spoke forcefully, attacking the Senate Democrats for allowing Ford's testimony.

Graham: What you wanna do is destroy this guy's life, hold this seat open, and hope you win in 2020. You've said that, not me.

Harrison: Even though you know you're gonna vote for Judge Kavanaugh, and that's on him to make a determination on why, at the very least, you should see the pain that this woman is goin' through, and treat her in a fair fashion. The dramatic waggin' of the finger, all of the other stuff that Lindsey Graham did was just over the top.

Graham: You want this seat? I hope you never get it. And I hope that the American people will see through this charade.

Harrison: That was the moment. Because I used to have a tremendous respect for Lindsey Graham. I didn't agree with him on a whole lot. But I thought that Lindsey was one of the few folks on a bipartisan basis that could be a statesman, that would stand up, and when the rubber met the road, for what was right for the country or for the state, and leave politics aside.

I always appreciated Lindsey because of that. But to see what he had transformed into, which is somebody who was doing a performance, not for the American people, but for one person. And to do that performance not to benefit people of South Carolina, but to benefit himself was just beyond the pale. (MUSIC)

Lee: On many of the issues, guns, abortion, climate change, Harrison is a moderate Democrat. But his campaign strategy isn't only about drawing a distinction between himself and Lindsey Graham on policy. It's about making his case that Graham is no longer the man for the job.

Harrison: We needed somebody who could challenge the status quo here, who could go in and talk to poor black, white and brown folks in rural counties in South Carolina, but also sit at round tables with the Chamber of Commerce and the Ports Authority and BMW and Boeing, and still talk about how you make a vibrant economy here in South Carolina. And there's never been a candidate on the Democratic side like me, who can do that. Who can go into those communities, who can relate to folks on that type of level.

Lee: Harrison's got momentum on the money front. In the last three months of 2019, his campaign raised $3.5 million. That's more money for a single quarter than any Democratic challenger in state history. Heading into 2020, Harrison had more than $4.6 million to spend against Graham.

Harrison: I have never felt that type of energy. I've gone to counties, Lancaster County, it's on the border between South Carolina and North Carolina. Donald Trump carried this county 61/35. I was supposed to go up to go talk to a group of seniors. We had about 30 RSVPs. I walk into the building. And I open the door, and I see that.

Lee: He pulls up a picture on his phone.

Harrison: A packed house.

Lee: A packed house of people who typically don't vote for Democrats.

Harrison: I was blown away. And as soon as I got in, they stand up and start cheering, and start chantin', "Send Lindsey home." Lancaster County. This is not Democratic country.

Lee: So there's a lot of excitement for Harrison. And he's ready to take on this challenge. But don't get it twisted. It's still a challenge. Sure. Harrison has more than $4.6 million. But Graham has more than twice that, $10.3. Graham has every reason to believe he'll win. His conservative base is reliable.

In 2008 when he ran for reelection, he won by 15 points. And in 2014, he won again by about the same margin, not to mention the fact that Trump won South Carolina by 14 points in 2016. We asked Senator Graham to talk to us for this episode. He declined. But we did talk to TW Arrighi, his campaign communications director. (BACKGROUND VOICE) We caught him on the phone from a Trump rally in North Charleston last week.

Mr. Arrighi: We could not be more happy with the state of play right now. And Senator Graham, like he always has, and this was the advice for Senator Thurmond to him, always run like you're behind. Always run like you're ten points behind. So Senator Graham started early with a launch with Vice President Pence back in the spring. And since then he's been running hard. We continue to do so all the way through November.

Lee: Now, it's pretty interesting that Arrighi would invoke the late Senator Strom Thurmond when talkin' about this race. More on that in a moment. But in any case, Arrighi made clear that Senator Graham does not see himself as behind.

Arrighi: No. And I've seen no evidence to prove that he is. I believe the people of South Carolina know him well. And right now, I am sitting in the parking lot outside of President Trump's rally down here in North Charleston. There have been people camped outside since Tuesday.

We had our team out putting lawn signs out late last night. We had numerous people pull up to us, asking for lawn signs. How can they get involved? I've never seen it in my years in politics. There is an energy, yes, for the president, but also for Senator Graham down here in South Carolina.

Because they know he's a man of principle. They know that his beliefs don't shift with the wind. He will always work with whoever is in the White House to achieve the best results for the people of South Carolina. And he is in so many ways, his own man.

Lee: Graham's campaign doesn't appear worried. So if Harrison wants a shot at this incumbent, he's got to be strategic. (MUSIC) Part of his plan is to turn out unregistered black voters, and get people to the polls who might ordinarily stay home.

Harrison: In this state, we have 400,000 unregistered people of color, which is significant, given the fact that Barack Obama lost the state in 2008 by 150,000 votes. For the first time, we are now over a million people of color that are registered in the state of South Carolina. So things are modifying. And they're changing. And that's why I keep talkin' about this new south.

Lee: So you like the math in this state--

Harrison: Yes.

Lee: But you've also talked about this idea of this squishy kinda middle, with independent and moderate voters. Talk to me about that, and how important they are.

Harrison: They are very, very important. These are people who may find themselves more fiscally conservative. But socially, they're more moderate, right? Six, seven times out of ten, they're gonna vote Republican. But give 'em a flawed Republican, and a Democrat that they like, they'll pull the Democratic lever.

And I like to say there's Lindsey Graham 1.0, and then there's Lindsey Graham 2.0. I don't know if I could win against Lindsey Graham 1.0. But I'm pretty certain that we will beat Lindsey Graham 2.0. And that's partly because the people who are supporting him are very different now than they were back then.

Lee: You know, we talked with one of those squishy middle kinda independent voters. A guy in Greenville. His name is John Rhodes. And he supported Graham in the past. He campaigned for McCain back in 2000, for Ron Paul in 2008. And now he's out there canvassing for you.

Harrison: Wow.

Lee: And that's the exact kind of voter that you're talkin' about--

Harrison: That's exactly what I'm talkin' about.

Lee: If Jaime Harrison does manage to beat Lindsey Graham, it would be a really big deal. There's the politics of it all. Sure, the underdog beating the establishment. But this would go beyond politics. This would make history.

Harrison: Well, right now, you know, we have an African American senator from the south. There's only one. And that's Tim Scott, who represents South Carolina.

Lee: By the way, Tim Scott is a Republican. He's held his seat since 2013. And he's the first black senator from a southern state since Reconstruction.

Harrison: Tim and I don't agree on a whole lot. But he's a good guy. He's a nice guy. And I have tremendous respect. When I get elected to United States Senate, it will be the first time that one state in the history of this nation, one state will have two African American senators serving at the very same time. And so it will be historic.

Lee: That's a bit of an understatement. There have only been ten black senators in U.S. history. And the seat that would make Harrison the second from the south in more than 130 years, it comes with its own racial baggage. (BACKGROUND VOICE) Before Lindsey Graham came to the Senate, his seat belonged to Strom Thurmond.

Strom Thurmond: There's not enough troops in the Army to force the southern people to break down segregation into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.

Lee: That's the man Graham's campaign communications director quoted earlier. Strom Thurmond was a segregationist. He made history with his 24-hour, 18-minute filibuster against the 1957 Civil Rights Act.

Harrison: And before it was Strom Thurmond's seat, it was the seat of this man called Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman. Ben Tillman was governor of South Carolina. But he was also a United States senator. As governor of South Carolina, he changed the constitution of the state, because he was fearful that an African American would ever become governor, and wanted to make sure that there were safeguards to prevent that African American governor from being able to do anything.

And so we have one of the weakest governorships in the country because of that. We still operate under that constitution. But Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman was also a man who would joyfully go to United States Senate and talk about the pure joy of lynching of black people. Talked about African Americans as animals.

Lee: It's possible that Jaime Harrison, this young black Democrat could take that seat.

Harrison: I want the boys and grills growin' up here in South Carolina to look to a new south, a new South Carolina, a (MUSIC) new south that is bold, that's inclusive, that's diverse, and that is building bridges to the future, for them.

Lee: One of those young people is 23-year-old Courtney Hicks (PH).

Courtney Hicks: Being an African American woman, I like seeing African American men having the strength and the willpower to speak truth to power, and actually not be afraid to do such.

Lee: Our producer, Preeti, met her at a Harrison fireside chat (BACKGROUND VOICE) at the College of Charleston.

Harrison: It's time for the good people of the state. It's time for the good people of this nation to stand up. And we can do that this election. And thank you all for coming. (APPLAUSE)

Lee: You can hear the turnout that night wasn't great. Courtney was one of just about a dozen people to show up, proof that Harrison still has a ways to (BACKGROUND VOICE) go if he wants to gain ground against Lindsey Graham. Courtney's parents voted for Graham in the past. But she's excited to throw her support behind Harrison now--

Hicks: (INAUDIBLE) I was, like, yeah. I donate my $5 every month, just a little bit to support his campaign and his mission.

Varathan: Do you think Jaime Harrison has a shot at winning this race?

Hicks: Prayerfully so. South Carolina is a very difficult state, especially when you're coming hard and strong at someone who has been in a position of power for so long. So hopefully we have enough people who are ready to support an agent of change. I pray so. I hope that his name begins to become more saturated in different homes so that he becomes a household name that people recognize, and not just recognize off of name, but off of what he actually wants to put in place.

Lee: Three hours away in Greenville, that's what John Rhodes is trying to do, make Jaime Harrison a household name. (MUSIC)

Rhodes: I'm your boots on the ground. I'm your ears on the ground. And to me, that's what a volunteer for a campaign does. You are the ears. You are the boots. How you doin'?

Citizen: Okay. How you doin'?

Lee: Nine months out from the election, some people still aren't paying attention to this race.

Rhodes: If you don't mind, may I ask you who you're thinkin' about for the upcomin' Senate race against Lindsey Graham?

Citizen: Kinda not at the moment, just been workin' so much, you know?

Rhodes: I understand that--

Citizen: Haven't had the time just to check out. You know? But--

Rhodes: I understand.

Citizen: --just work, work, (LAUGH) workin' right now.

Rhodes: I feel the same way a lot of times too.

Citizen: Yeah, in the cold, in the rain, everything.

Lee: But this guy likes what John has to say about Jaime Harrison. So he agrees to look into him.

Citizen: I will. I will. Most definitely.

Lee: For John Rhodes, that's a win.

Rhodes: You have a good day, okay--

Citizen: I will. You too.

Rhodes: Take some time off for yourself too, okay? Get some rest--

Citizen: I will. (LAUGH)

Lee: Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next Thursday.