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October 22, 2020 9:51 am

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, an Israel Stalwart, is Facing Surprisingly Tough Re-Election Bid

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman visit the border line between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights, March 11, 2019. Photo: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun. – Much attention has been paid to election races in several battleground states across the country that could tip the balance of power in the US senate. Yet one especially close race that has taken many by surprise is the South Carolina battle between Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Jaime Harrison, former head of the South Carolina Democratic Party.

Despite South Carolina being one of the most solidly Republican states over the past few decades, Graham, who has served in the Senate since 2003 and heads the power Senate Judiciary Committee, now finds himself on the defensive against an opponent with a compelling personal story who is generating strong momentum among his base and amassing a substantial war chest.

Robert Oldendick, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina, told JNS that fundraising has played a significant role in the tightness of the race.

“It was apparent fairly early that Harrison was going to be the Democratic nominee, so he was able to get a head start on fundraising,” said Oldendick.

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Indeed, Harrison has raised a staggering $57 million in the third quarter of this year—setting a new record for fundraising in a senate race. In all, Harrison has raised some $86 million so far in the election cycle. While Graham has not released third-quarter fundraising totals, he raised only $8.4 million in the second quarter and had $15 million in the bank as of June.

“These financial resources, together with Harrison’s close connections to [Georgia] Congressman [James] Clyburn and his experience as the head of the State Democratic Party have combined to make him a formidable candidate,” said Oldendick.

Yet Graham is one of the most well-known senators in Congress. For years, he was a close ally of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as part of his team of “mavericks,” and after a failed presidential run in 2016, has become one of US President Donald Trump’s most outspoken supporters in the senate (despite his strong criticism of Trump during the 2016 primary).

For the pro-Israel community, Graham is also known as one of the Jewish state’s most vocal backers. He is known to be close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and has supported pro-Israel legislation throughout the years, including spearheading the pivotal Taylor Force Act, which suspended aid to the Palestinian Authority over its support for terrorists or their families.

Sander Gerber, a New York hedge-fund manager who worked closely with Graham on the Taylor Force Act, told JNS that the senator is one of the strongest pro-Israel voices in Congress.

“Lindsey is more pro-Israel than AIPAC; he is one of the great leaders in the US Congress that supports Israel from the heart, and he has always been on the forefront of being a true friend for the State of Israel,” he said.

Graham also has wide support in the evangelical Christian community—a key voice in South Carolina and a vocal backer of Israel.

He is among “Israel’s most stalwart allies in Congress,” said Sandra Parker, chairwoman of the CUFI Action Fund. “We were particularly honored to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him as he worked tirelessly to advance the Taylor Force Act. At a time when support for the US-Israel relationship is threatened by the fringes on the right and left, we are deeply grateful for Sen. Graham’s unwavering leadership on this issue.”

In the senate race in South Carolina, however, foreign policy has taken a back seat to domestic issues.

“In general, the average South Carolina voter does not know much about Mideast policy or Sen. Graham’s position, and in this race, this issue has been dwarfed by the Supreme Court nomination, Graham’s attempt to portray Harrison as a radical/liberal, and Harrison’s counter-argument that Sen. Graham has lost touch with the needs of South Carolina and become too ensnared in Washington politics,” said Oldendick.

Changing demographics and a focus on domestic issues

Like the rest of the country, South Carolina’s Jewish community remains divided on issues and politics, according to Rabbi Brad Bloom of Congregation Beth Yam in Hilton Head, SC.

“Our community is split like the rest of the country; we have members on both sides,” he said.

But like the rest of the southern United States, South Carolina has been undergoing a number of demographic changes in recent decades that’s beginning to change internal politics.

“South Carolina is still very much a red conservative state,” said Bloom. “But we have seen a lot of growth and changes in our area.”

Indeed, buoyed by the state’s warm weather, cheap real estate and business-friendly environment, many from other more expensive (and liberal) areas of the country have flocked to the state, especially retirees increasingly drawn to the resort area of Hilton Head Island. With a median home price of around 200,000, according to

Bloom noted that not all the changing demographics in his area pertains to seniors, but also from many corporations and industries that are attracting young families as well.

He said that while the Jewish community in South Carolina is small, especially compared to other nearby states, it’s known to be actively engaged in politics and have a long history in the state, dating back to the colonial period. South Carolina is home to an estimated 16,820 Jews, according to the Jewish Virtual Library.

And, like most other Americans, for South Carolinian Jews, domestic concerns have dominated the discussion.

Bloom said that while Israel is in hearts and minds, the main issues his congregants have been discussing are domestic affairs, particularly the coronavirus pandemic and racial issues.

A focus on Israel and Black Lives Matter

Earlier in October, Bloom interviewed both candidates—Graham and Harrison—separately as part of a series hosted by his synagogue on the election.

When asked by Bloom on the issues regarding Black Lives Matter and the BDS movement, Harrison rejected any boycotts of the Jewish state. “I don’t support any of the efforts to divest from Israel,” he said.

Harrison went on to describe his visit to Israel in 2006 as part of an AIPAC-sponsored trip when he was a congressional staffer, and said it was one of the most “amazing moments of my life.”

“I’ve always had a great relationship with AIPAC, J Street and all those various groups that have represented Israel’s interests here in the United States,” he said.

“Peace in Israel is a priority for me,” related Harrison. “On a foreign-policy note, finding a two-state solution. It is a beautiful place, and it tears me heart apart that as long as it’s been there has been turmoil. I want to be a solution to that.”

Harrison went on to say that the Black Lives Matter movement is important to him, and that he doesn’t get into that “mission creep stuff” in an apparent reference to BDS and other issues found among some BLM activists.

Instead, Harrison went into the history of suffering by African-Americans in the country and how that has shaped his views on the movement.

“I also understand that Jewish folks understand that, too,” Harrison said when referring to the threat of police violence.

“That historical pain is not something that is unique to African-Americans, but Jewish folks have also had historical pain, and I think that is why the bond between the two people is strong.”

Harrison has gained the endorsement of liberal Jewish groups such as J Street and the Democratic Majority for Israel.

“Mr. Harrison is an incredibly inspiring leader,” Mark Mellman, president and CEO of the Democratic Majority for Israel, told JNS. “He talks meaningfully and with conviction about his time spent in Israel. I have every confidence that he will not just be a pro-Israel voice, but a pro-Israel champion in the US Senate.”

In September, Harrison’s campaign came under fire when it emerged that two staff members apologized for years-old antisemitic, homophobic and sexist tweets.

“That language has no place in our state,” Harrison said in a statement. “Although these tweets are many years old, inexperience is no excuse for such inappropriate language, and I have addressed this personally with these individuals and my entire team.”

While most polls have indicated a toss-up between Graham and Harrison (although a recent poll by The New York Times/Siena gave Graham a six-point lead), Oldendick sees the incumbent as having an advantage heading into the home stretch.

“The Supreme Court hearings have been a benefit for Sen. Graham and are likely to provide him with the issue that he needs to allow him to win a narrow victory,” he said.

“As chair of the Judiciary Committee, he has been provided an opportunity to act ‘senatorial’ and the hearings have reminded South Carolina [Republican] voters of the importance of having conservative judges in the federal system.”

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