Democrats in conservative SC now see opportunity for gains

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FILE- In this Feb. 24, 2020 photo, Democratic Senate candidate Jaime Harrison, who is challenging U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks at a South Carolina Democratic Party dinner in Charleston, S.C. Harrison has raised more money than his Republican opponent, Sen. Lindsey Graham, two quarters in a row. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard, File)

COLUMBIA, S.C. – There's an unusual feeling emerging among Democrats in South Carolina: energy.

The party can be almost an afterthought in this deeply conservative state where Republicans control the governor's office, both chambers of the Legislature and all but two seats in the congressional delegation. It's been nearly 15 years since a Democrat won a statewide office and 44 years since a Democratic presidential candidate claimed the state.

But Democrats insist the GOP's grip on this Deep South state is weakening.

In the U.S. Senate race, Democrat Jaime Harrison has raised more money than GOP incumbent Lindsey Graham for two quarters in a row. A Democrat captured a longtime Republican state House seat this past week by double digits. And Joe Biden's decision to pick Kamala Harris as his running mate is exciting the state's sizable Black population.

“People wanted to see a Biden-Harris ticket,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the third-ranking Democratic leader whose endorsement of Biden helped the former vice president win the South Carolina primary and clinch the Democratic nomination. "People wanted to see Kamala on the ticket, and the Democratic voters in South Carolina got what they preferred.”

Of course, South Carolina is still a Republican state. President Donald Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton here by 14 percentage points in 2016 and is easily favored to win again in November.

But after a generation of losses in the Deep South, Democrats see opportunities in the region, especially in rapidly growing suburbs where voters have grown uneasy with Trump. North Carolina and Georgia are presidential battlegrounds this year and also feature competitive Senate races.

Jimmy Williams, a longtime consultant who currently advises a political action committee supporting Harrison, said the same trends are unfolding in South Carolina.