COLUMBIA, S.C. -- With confidence in his national connections and fundraising ability, a top official with the Democratic National Committee said Thursday that he is launching an exploratory committee with the goal of replacing Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina in 2020.
"If my hunch is right, if people in South Carolina really are hurting, are yearning for new leadership, leadership that will focus on the issues that they're dealing with, instead of the temper tantrums and power plays in Washington, D.C., then I believe that I'm the right person, and I bring the skills to be the leader that we desperately need in D.C., representing the interests of the people of South Carolina," Jaime Harrison told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday, a day ahead of the official release of his plans.
Harrison, an associate chairman for the DNC, also served as the first black chairman of South Carolina's Democratic Party during the 2016 cycle. He has worked in national-level political circles for years, previously directing floor operations for U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn and running for DNC chairman in 2017.
Harrison, 43, said he has the know-how and network to raise the out-of-state cash needed to take on Graham, who is seeking his fourth term in 2020 and may face primary opposition of his own. Harrison said he believes a successful candidate may need $10 million to win next year's race. Graham already has more than $3 million in his coffers.
Graham, 63, has often fielded challenges from the right in his previous re-election campaigns, subject to criticism that he's been too willing to work with Democrats to accurately represent conservative South Carolinians and garnering support among moderate voters here.
When he sought the White House in 2016, Graham frequently clashed with then-Republican candidate Donald Trump, who lodged the same critique of Graham, painting him as wishy-washy and even reading out Graham's personal cellphone number to a room full of supporters and reporters.
Graham ultimately said he wouldn't back either Trump or Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in the general election, saying the Republican Party had been "conned."
Over the last year, though, Graham's relationship with Trump and the GOP in general has evolved. Graham and Trump have become frequent partners for golf outings, which Graham says has shown him Trump can be both "charming and gracious." After Graham's fiery defense of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, South Carolina Republican activists who had at times questioned his motives embraced him. The Republican National Committee sent Graham on a multistate tour to campaign for 2018 Republican candidates.
From his vantage point, Harrison said his own chances are boosted by the fact that Graham has likely lost the support of some moderate voters who had once backed him but are looking for another choice now that he is back in conservatives' good graces.
"I think that support is now gone," Harrison said. "We can't trust what Lindsey Graham is saying these days. ... It's almost like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde effect."
In a statement to the AP, Graham campaign manager Scott Farmer said Graham's record would stand on its own during his re-election campaign.
"Democrats are hopping mad because of the prominent role Senator Graham has played in confirming Justice Kavanaugh, rebuilding our military, and standing with President Trump," Farmer said.
In terms of high-level support, Harrison said he's confident he can count on South Carolina's top Democrat to be in his corner.
"Congressman Clyburn is almost as close as a father to me, a political dad," Harrison said. "He has always indicated his support for whatever I've done, and I'm pretty sure that he will be supportive in this effort as well."
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP