Once a biting critic of President Donald Trump, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman on Monday opens confirmation hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett in a bid to seal a 6-to-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Hanging in the balance could be the future of government health care during a coronavirus pandemic that’s claimed more than 214,000 American lives.
And Graham’s own career appears in jeopardy like never before.
For Graham, the Republican Senate majority and Trump himself, the hearings three weeks before Election Day could be a last stand.
The proceedings are a display for voters of what it means to control the presidency and the Senate.
But they’re also a real-time test of whether that’s enough to counter a jaw-dropping $57 million fundraising haul by Graham’s Democratic opponent in the South Carolina race, Jaime Harrison.
“Senator, how good is your word?” Harrison, 44, asked at a recent debate.
Graham’s answer is complicated by his whipsaw shifts, particularly where Trump is concerned. He’s been both friend and foe of the belligerent president. Now, they play golf.
He once vowed to oppose any Supreme Court confirmation hearings in presidential election years.
This week, he is chairing Barrett’s, and predicting she’ll be confirmed to the high court this month to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
If so, Barrett, 48, would be one of the nine justices to hear arguments on issues that affect millions of people.
One is a Trump administration-backed challenge to the Affordable Care Act that’s expected to come up a week after the election.
Other charged topics that could be headed for the high court include abortion, immigration and gay marriage.
With early voting underway in South Carolina and many other states, Graham, 65, mounts the dais confronted with his opponent’s withering fundraising, his own statements as one of the Senate’s most visible members, and Trump’s weak standing against Democrat Joe Biden in the final stretch of the campaign.
“What he’s finding out is in the last four years it’s come back to bite him,” said Danielle Vinson, professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University.
“There are lots of people who were familiar with him. He was willing to take on the party. When he changed to support Trump and embrace Trump, I really think it set some people off.”
Harrison’s money doesn’t guarantee he’ll defeat Graham. In the final fundraising period of 2018, Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s USD 38 million topped the amount raised by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, who won their Senate race.
And being a Republican in traditionally conservative South Carolina carries a great deal of weight.
The state has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1998.
But the days leading up to the Barrett hearings were particularly challenging for Graham. On Friday, during a debate forum with Harrison — who is Black — Graham denied there was systemic racism in South Carolina.
“If you’re a young African American, an immigrant, you can go anywhere in this state. You just need to be conservative, not liberal,” Graham said.
Then on Sunday, Harrison’s campaign rocked the political world with its fundraising haul, propelled by contributions from around the country.