Democratic Senate nominee Jaime Harrison has spent millions upon millions of dollars in the last several months attacking his Republican opponent, Senator Lindsey Graham, for not being transparent with South Carolinians about where he stands on the key political issues of the day, from immigration reform and racial justice to his support more broadly for Donald Trump.
But there is one major question on which Mr Graham has made his position abundantly clear in the final weeks of the 2020 election, while Mr Harrison has repeatedly ducked it: How would he actually vote on the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett?
Mr Harrison and Democrats across the country have assailed Mr Graham for “flip-flopping” on his declaration in 2016 — which he re-affirmed again in a now-infamous clip from the winter of 2018 — that he would not seat a Supreme Court nominee during the 2020 presidential election season.
That relentless assault, along with record-breaking fundraising numbers, have helped propel Mr Harrison’s race into the national spotlight as he has pulled virtually even in the polls with Mr Graham.
Yet when a reporter asked Mr Harrison on Saturday at a drive-in rally in Florence, South Carolina, how he would actually vote on Ms Barrett’s confirmation slated for Monday, he declined to explicitly answer, saying he still has questions for Ms Barrett on how she would adjudicate certain cases such as attempts to roll back Obamacare, abortion rights, and gay marriage.
“I want to get answers for these questions. And if I were in the US Senate, I would hope that she and I would have had an opportunity to sit down with each other to talk about it,” Mr Harrison said, the orange glow of a fading South Carolina sunset shimmering off the Wilson High School football field’s yellow field goal uprights.
It was a diplomatic – and tactical – non-response to the Supreme Court situation, intended to appease independent, on-the-fence voters in South Carolina who have supported Mr Trump’s appointment of a historic number of conservative judges and justices over the last three and a half years, but who feel uneasy about Mr Graham’s naked reversal on seating a Supreme Court nominee in a presidential election year.
Here’s the thing, though: Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee have already asked all those questions Mr Harrison says he has, first in private meetings and later at public confirmation hearings. Ms Barret has stonewalled them at every turn.
Mr Harrison, who spent years on Capitol Hill as an aide to his hometown congressman, Democratic House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, knows all this.
Running out the clock
He’s dusting off the classic strategy of running out the clock, which expires Monday evening when the Republican Senate majority is expected to confirm Ms Barrett on a party-line vote.
At her public confirmation hearings earlier this month, Ms Barrett evaded dozens of questions about how she would rule on legal challenges to same-sex marriage protections, the landmark 1973 decision in Roe v Wade that enshrined abortion rights, Obamacare, and other liberal priorities, saying the “judicial canons” prevented her from “pre-judging” hypothetical cases.
“You are pushing me to try to violate the judicial canons to offer advisory opinions, and I won't do that,” Ms Barrett told Connecticut Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal in response to a series of questions about constitutional protections for gay marriage.
Ms Barrett told senators from both parties multiple times — under oath, on live television — that it would be unethical for her to promise them or Mr Trump she would rule a certain way on certain politically contentious cases.
So when Mr Harrison told reporters in Florence on Saturday he needs “answers” on where Ms Barrett and other judicial nominees “stand on all of these civil rights issues… in order to make a determination on if I can vote for someone,” he did so knowing full well that no modern judicial nominees — including Ms Barrett ever give such answers.
That won’t change even if he does defeat Mr Graham on 3 November and becomes a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee that vets candidates for the federal bench. And it won’t change even if Democrats reclaim a Senate majority by picking up a net of four seats this November (or three seats plus the presidency).
Mr Harrison has sent enough strong signals to assure his liberal base he would vote against Ms Barrett if he were in Mr Graham’s shoes.
And, to be sure, he has echoed Senate Democrats’ complaints that the Barrett nomination should never have seen the light of day in the first place, as millions of Americans have already cast ballots for president and Senate.
Thousands of South Carolinians have voted since in-person early voting precincts opened on 5 October to reduce Election Day traffic amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“Confirming a lifetime appointment this late into a presidential election season is outrageous,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a speech on the floor of the Senate on Sunday.
“It is even more galling, of course, because nearly every Republican in this chamber, led by [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell], four years ago, refused to even consider the Supreme Court nominee of a Democratic president on the grounds — the “principle” — that we should wait until after the presidential election because the American people deserved a voice in the selection of their next Justice,” Mr Schumer said.
But opposing the process by which Ms Barrett will have been confirmed — which Mr Harrison has done — and explicitly coming out in opposition to her actual confirmation carry drastically different political ramifications since the latter at least allows a candidate to retain the veneer of an independent, non-partisan deliberator.
Graham reverses — and digs in
Mr Graham, meanwhile, does not have the political luxury of avoiding Monday’s fiercely partisan vote.
In fact, his role as chairman of the Judiciary panel overseeing her confirmation process has put him under intense national scrutiny.
That has forced him to aggressively double down on his outright reversal from his position in 2016, when he and the rest of the Senate GOP refused to even meet with Merrick Garland, Barack Obama’s pick to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, for more than seven months leading up to the presidential election that year.
At the time, Mr Graham said: “I want you to use my words against me. If there's a Republican president in 2016 and a vacancy occurs in the last year of the first term, you can say Lindsey Graham said: Let's let the next president, whoever it might be, make that nomination. And you could use my words against me and you'd be absolutely right.”
Now, as he prepares to cast a “yea” vote on Monday to confirm Ms Barrett, a Supreme Court nominee he has “never been more proud” to support, he has made that vote the central pillar of his re-election campaign down the home stretch of the voting period here in South Carolina.
All across South Carolina this October, thousands of political signs have dotted front yards, traffic medians, and grassy highway curbs with the bolded message “#FillTheSeat” underneath the words “Lindsey Graham for US Senate.”
Mr Graham’s Judiciary panel “got it right when it came to Judge Barrett,” he said on Thursday after advancing her nomination out of committee and onto the Senate floor for final consideration.
“It would have been wrong to deny her a vote," Mr Graham offered as a closing argument. "We did the right thing."