As a first-term congressman from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham stood on the floor of the House of Representatives and attacked what he called the “fog” of Washington.

“People are so detached from reality . . . it really is amazing,” the political newcomer said. He noted his promise to serve no more than a dozen years on Capitol Hill.

That was 25 years ago.

A quarter-century later, a silver-haired Mr Graham is coming to the end of his third six-year term as a US senator. He is among the most senior Republicans in Congress and one of President Donald Trump’s closest allies.

But the 65-year-old is in now in the fight of his political life. He faces a formidable challenge from Democrat Jaime Harrison, a black 44-year-old former congressional aide and lobbyist who has raised $86m for his campaign — more money than any Senate candidate in US history.

With fewer than three weeks to go until election day, statewide polls show a tight race — the last Quinnipiac survey had the two men statistically tied. The same poll showed Mr Trump leading his Democratic opponent Joe Biden by just one point, a stunning set of circumstances in a historically Republican southern state where Mr Graham won re-election six years ago by a nearly 17-point margin.

The Republican party is hoping to rally its base with the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett as a Supreme Court justice © Win McNamee/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

“The fact is that Jaime hopped into this race when nobody said he had a snowball’s chance in hell,” says Trav Robertson, chair of the South Carolina Democratic party. “He has put together a campaign that has put him nationally, and in this state, in the realm of doing what people did not think was possible.”

The fate of Republican senators, such as Mr Graham, is central to the outcome of the November 3 election. Given Mr Biden’s comfortable lead in the polls, many Democrats are starting to grow more confident about winning the White House.

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But the success of a Biden administration would also depend on the Democrats winning the Senate. Only then would the new president have a chance to push through legislative priorities on everything from healthcare to climate change to pandemic stimulus without Republican obstruction.

Mr Graham is one of several Republican senators struggling to keep their seats. Martha McSally in Arizona, Cory Gardner in Colorado and Susan Collins in Maine all face tough re-election battles. So do David Perdue in Georgia, Joni Ernst in Iowa and Thom Tillis in North Carolina — all states that Mr Trump won in 2016.

It is a state of affairs that seemed unimaginable just a few months ago. But amid heavy criticism of Mr Trump’s handling of the pandemic, many voters appear to be lining up behind Democratic congressional candidates, too.

The key races 1: Republican women under fire

Iowa 

Republican incumbent Joni Ernst, right, the first female combat veteran elected to the Senate, is trailing Democrat Theresa Greenfield, who runs a local real estate firm, in the polls in the Midwestern state that Mr Trump won by 10 points in 2016.

Maine 

Longtime Republican senator Susan Collins, right, who has always styled herself as a moderate, could lose her seat to Sara Gideon, a Democratic state lawmaker, in part because of her support for Mr Trump’s appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

“When you are looking at trying to win in places like South Carolina and Montana, and Iowa, and Georgia, and North Carolina, it seemed impossible to knock off incumbents . . . if you presumed a normal presidential map in a normal year,” says Matt Bennett, co-founder of the Democratic think-tank Third Way. “But certainly the map is expanding in incredible ways.”

Democrats hold the House of Representatives, but the Republicans currently control the 100-member upper chamber of Congress, with 53 senators. Two senators — Angus King of Maine, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont — are independents but caucus with the Democrats.

Mr Graham’s race in South Carolina is emblematic of the broader issues faced by Republicans across America. On one hand, the party is hoping to rally its base with the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett as a Supreme Court justice who is opposed to abortion and in favour of gun rights. As chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, Mr Graham has a starring role in that process, with confirming hearings being held this week.

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On the other hand, the senator and many of his colleagues are realising that supporting Mr Trump is a double-edged sword. If they curry favour with the president’s most ardent supporters, they risk alienating the moderate Republicans and swing voters who cannot stomach his bombastic rhetoric and are angered by his management of the pandemic.

Mr Harrison believes he can pull off what he describes as a “David and Goliath” story. “We are on the verge of a tremendous upset,” he says.

Lindsey Graham, left, is a frequent defender of Trump, centre, on Fox News, and a regular golfing partner for the president © Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE

‘Trump is on your side’

Mr Graham is perhaps the most extreme example of a Republican who has changed his tune on the president. In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, the senator called Mr Trump a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot”, a “kook” and a “jackass” who was “unfit” to be president.

Today, Mr Graham, a frequent defender of Mr Trump on Fox News and a regular golfing partner for the president at weekends, is working in lockstep with the White House to confirm Ms Barrett.

In South Carolina, Mr Graham has tried to satisfy two different groups. He has a rightwing base that has never liked his record of bipartisanship — along with his close friend, the late Republican senator John McCain, the senator frequently worked with Democrats earlier in his career. But he also needs more moderate Republicans and independents who see his U-turn on Mr Trump as hypocritical at best and unforgivable at worst.

Earlier this month, just hours after the White House revealed that the president had tested positive for Covid-19, Mr Graham was in a hotel ballroom in Myrtle Beach, a seaside golf resort, addressing a conference of current and retired South Carolina police officers. It was only 9am, but the senator said he had already spoken to the president on the phone to wish him well.

“The Republican party has its faults, and Trump can be a handful . . . but he has been right on the things that matter to me, and I hope to you,” Mr Graham told the audience. “Do you have any doubt that Donald Trump is on your side? Do you have any doubt that I am on your side?”

Key races 2: the Deep South

Alabama 

Republicans are likely to pick up a Senate seat in Alabama, where college football coach Tommy Tuberville, right, is challenging incumbent Democrat Doug Jones, who won in a 2017 special election against Roy Moore, who was the subject of sexual misconduct allegations.

Georgia 

Both of Georgia’s US Senate seats are up for grabs, with Democrat Jon Ossoff, left, challenging incumbent Republican David Perdue, second from left, and a simultaneous special election involving two Republicans and one Democrat vying for a vacancy that opened up in 2019 with Johnny Isakson’s resignation. Kelly Loeffler, an Intercontinental Exchange executive, filled the spot but she is being challenged by fellow Republican Doug Collins, bottom right, a vocal Trump ally, and Democrat Raphael Warnock, second from right.

The officers — many of whom said they would never vote for a Democrat after calls by left-leaning activists to “defund the police” during this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests — proved to be a friendly crowd for Mr Graham, giving him a standing ovation.

But the senator did not shy away from acknowledging his ballot box battle, saying he was taking the challenge “seriously”.

“Has anybody seen a commercial of my opponent? If I see one more, I think I am going to vote for him,” Mr Graham quipped, referring to the wall-to-wall television advertisements the Harrison campaign has purchased. “Where the hell is all of this money coming from?”

“Every liberal in the country is supporting my opponent, which means to me I must be doing something right,” he added. “So let’s send a message to Hollywood from South Carolina: You’re welcome to visit, but you’re not going to pick our senator.”

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Changing state

South Carolina has long been a Republican stronghold. The last Democrat to win the state in a presidential election was Jimmy Carter in 1976, and he benefited in part from calling the neighbouring state of Georgia home. Republicans currently control all of South Carolina’s statewide offices. Mr Graham is one of two Republican senators from the state. Five of the state’s seven House members are also from the GOP.

The two exceptions are Jim Clyburn, a veteran Democratic congressman whose endorsement helped catapult Mr Biden to his party’s presidential nomination, and Joe Cunningham, a first-term congressman who was part of a wave of Democrats who flipped seats held by Republicans in the 2018 US midterm elections.

The socially conservative and strongly religious state, which was the first to secede from the union in the American Civil War, also maintains a complicated relationship with its slave-trading past. The Confederate battle flag — a symbol often associated with slavery and segregation — was only removed from the State House five years ago, after a white supremacist killed nine black worshippers at Mother Emanuel, a church in Charleston.

“It really is a Republican-dominated state. But it is a state that is changing,” says Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston. He pointed to an influx of Democrats from parts of the north-east and Midwest and said Mr Harrison would need to mobilise those voters, as well as the state’s large African-American population, to win in November.

“There is a coalition to be built,” Mr Knotts says. “[Barack] Obama did it nationally; Joe Cunningham did it in the first congressional district. But we have not seen anyone do that statewide in South Carolina in 20 years or so.”

The coronavirus pandemic was among the topics discussed in Mr Graham’s first re-election debate with Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison © Joshua Boucher/The State/AP

Younger Democrats, many with college degrees, have moved to South Carolina in recent years for jobs in the suburbs of Charlotte, which is just over the state border in North Carolina. Older Democrats, drawn to milder winters and lower taxes, have moved to South Carolina to retire along the Atlantic coast.

For conservatives, the shift has not gone unnoticed. At a local Republican party office in Charleston earlier this month, one man stopped in to collect yard signs advertising for Mr Graham, noting that “unfortunately” he had seen many placards for Mr Harrison in his neighbourhood. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I have a feeling I know what’s going on,” he said to a party volunteer, who nodded in agreement.

“They come down here for the lower taxes and the nice lifestyle, but then they bring their politics with them,” she said. “They turn us into what they left.”

South Carolina is one of many southern states where changing demographics, driven in part by economic growth and job opportunities in cities like Charlotte, as well as Atlanta, Georgia, and Austin, Texas, have resulted in an influx of Democratic voters and the possibility that states that were once solidly “red” could shift to the Democrats. Mr Harrison frequently describes his campaign as part of a wider effort to build a “New South”.

But Republican officials maintain South Carolina will stay true to its roots. Drew McKissick, chairman of the state Republican party, contends that even the large sums of money being spent by the Harrison campaign would not be enough to win over a majority of the state’s voters.

“Quite frankly, no matter how much you spend on any campaign, people have to be willing to buy what you are selling. Just ask President [Mike] Bloomberg or President Tom Steyer,” he says, referring to the two billionaires who failed in their Democratic presidential primary bids.

“Jaime is the representative of Democratic party on the ballot,” Mr McKissick said. “Representing the Democratic party comes with a lot of political baggage that is not popular in South Carolina.”

Key races 3: a shift in the Sunbelt

North Carolina 

Republican Thom Tillis, right, a former management consultant at PwC and IBM, is in the fight of his political life, defending his seat against Democrat Cal Cunningham, a retired military officer who was leading in the polls but whose campaign is reeling from revelations that he had an extramarital affair.

Fundraising gap

The Harrison campaign on Sunday revealed they had raised $57m in the third quarter, the largest sum raised in three months by a Senate candidate in US history. During the same quarter, Mr Graham raised $28m. The previous quarterly record was held by Beto O’Rourke, the former Democratic congressman who raised $38m in the final stretch of his effort to oust Ted Cruz in Texas in the 2018 midterms.

Republicans are keen to draw comparisons between Mr Harrison and Mr O’Rourke, who came up short against Mr Cruz despite generating widespread national enthusiasm for his candidacy.

Mr Harrison bristles at Republicans’ suggestions that the bulk of his donations have come from wealthy donors living outside of South Carolina. His campaign says the total of $86m they had raised so far in this election cycle has come from nearly 1m individual donors, with an average donation size of $37. South Carolina has a population of 5.1m.

“This is grassroots. Grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, cousins, donations from all [of South Carolina’s] 46 counties . . . I am proud of that,” Mr Harrison said.

Katon Dawson, former chairman of the South Carolina Republican party, disagrees. “Jaime Harrison doesn’t know these people, he does not have to know them,” Mr Dawson says, adding that he was confident that despite the fundraising gap — Mr Graham’s campaign has not disclosed its third-quarter figures, but had raised nearly $30m at the end of June — the senator would triumph.

Mr Graham has come under fire for going back on his 2016 statement that there should be no vote on Supreme Court nominees in an election year © Stefani Reynolds/Getty

“It will show you that a lot of people don’t like President Trump, nor Lindsey, but that’s OK. We’re going to show how many people do like him,” he says. “Everybody around the country who doesn’t like him, doesn’t matter here. Because guess what? They can’t vote.”

Mr Dawson and other Republicans say Mr Graham’s stewardship of Judge Barrett’s confirmation will only earn him plaudits with South Carolina voters, galvanising conservatives around issues like abortion and gun rights, while reminding those on the fence of his influence in Washington.

Rob Godfrey, a longtime adviser to former South Carolina Republican governor Nikki Haley, says the hearings will provide an “unquantifiable and invaluable” contribution to Mr Graham. “It is pretty easy for people to click away from, or turn the channel on, traditional TV ads,” says “It is a much harder proposition to change every channel when you have got Senator Graham leading the . . . hearings.”

But Mr Harrison says Mr Graham’s handling of the Supreme Court vacancy is just another example of the senator’s flip-flopping.

After Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last month, a video went viral of Mr Graham from four years earlier, when Republicans refused to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, during an election year.

In the clip, the senator said: “I want you to use my words against me. If there is a Republican president . . . 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’.”

The senator swiftly distanced himself from his earlier comments, insisting Republicans press ahead with confirming Judge Barrett, saying: “The rules have changed as far as I’m concerned.”

“This is a guy who cannot keep his word,” Mr Harrison said. “My grandfather taught me, he said a man is only as good as his word. What is Lindsey Graham’s word worth?”

Profile photographs by AP, Getty Images, AFP via Getty Images, Bloomberg and Reuters

Via Financial Times