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Supreme Court Fight Returns Lindsey Graham to Spotlight

WASHINGTON—For Sen. Lindsey Graham’s re-election hopes, the Supreme Court fight could be propitious.

The South Carolina Republican has faced a tightening race over the past two months, with well-funded Democratic opponent Jaime Harrison casting him as out of touch with voter struggles and accusing Mr. Graham of regularly shifting positions when the political winds change. But the coming battle to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will highlight a stance critical to many GOP voters: He is a staunch social conservative.

Mr. Graham, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is set to preside over the confirmation of President Trump’s third Supreme Court nominee, putting him back in the national spotlight two years after his defense of Justice Brett Kavanaugh drew rave reviews from conservatives.

“I’ve seen this movie before. It’s not going to work, it didn’t work with Kavanaugh,” Mr. Graham said on Fox News, as he predicted confirmation of President Trump’s nominee by Election Day despite Democratic opposition. “They are not going to intimidate me.”

President Trump has told congressional Republicans and others he intends to name U.S. Appeals Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett as his choice for the Supreme Court, according to people familiar with the decision. She is a conservative Catholic who is viewed favorably by antiabortion advocates, an advantage in a socially conservative state that Mr. Trump won by more than 14 points in 2016.

Mr. Graham is expected to lay out his timeline for the nomination after Mr. Trump announces his pick. Republican aides have said the committee could hold hearings the week of Oct. 10, and the panel could potentially approve the nomination by Oct. 22. The full Senate vote could happen around Oct. 26. Election Day is Nov. 3.

Tracking the Vote

Note: Data as of Sept. 22
Source: the senators

“You’re getting ready to have the chairman of the Judiciary Committee hold hearings on nominating a woman to the federal Supreme Court who is pro-life. Do I need to say more in South Carolina?” said Katon Dawson, a former Republican Party chairman who has raised money for Mr. Graham. “Democrats are going to do a great job of getting out the vote for us when they start attacking her.”

Mr. Graham, a three-term senator, might need such an advantage. The last two Quinnipiac polls put his race at a tie, with 48% for both Mr. Graham and his opponent, Mr. Harrison, in a survey earlier this month. No Democratic challenger has garnered more than 44% of the vote since Mr. Graham was first elected to the Senate in 2002.

In popular support, “Jaime has climbed a hill that I don’t think any Democrat has done since Fritz Hollings and Jim Hodges in ’98,” said Nu Wexler, a former executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party, referring to the state’s former Democratic senator and governor.

Mr. Harrison, a former state Democratic party chairman and lobbyist who once worked for House Democratic Whip Jim Clyburn (D., S.C.), raised more than $30 million through the end of June, bringing in funds at a pace that enabled him to match Mr. Graham even after getting a later start in the race, and has spent so much that he is one of the top 10 political spenders on television nationally.

“Help me. They’re killing me money-wise,” Mr. Graham said in an appearance on Fox News this week, as he read out his campaign website address.

After a poll showed the race in a tie, Mr. Harrison raised $2 million over the two days ended Sept. 18, he announced on Twitter. His campaign hasn’t released updated financial data.

The biggest share of Mr. Harrison’s television spending has gone to the conservative upstate areas of Greenville and Spartanburg, according to political ad tracker Kantar/CMAG data. Strategists say that Mr. Harrison is not aiming to pick up votes in this conservative region so much as to depress Mr. Graham’s support by encouraging Republicans to vote for the third-party candidate, Bill Bledsoe of the Constitution Party.

Senate votes for Supreme Court justices by party

“In such a tight race, a point or two shift among Republicans could make a difference,” said Tim Malloy, an analyst with the Quinnipiac Poll.

Conservatives have in the past warred with Mr. Graham, who has a track record of working with Democrats, such as on immigration policy. He has also had a complicated relationship with Mr. Trump, calling him a “race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot” in 2015 before Mr. Trump won the presidency but since then becoming one of his closest confidants on Capitol Hill.

Several factors are roiling the race. Some tobacco farmers in the state, hurt by retaliatory tariffs from China amid Mr. Trump’s trade war, blame Mr. Graham for not doing more to intervene with the president. Black voters are energized by the number of Black candidates on the Democratic ticket, including vice-presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris. Voters of both parties oppose offshore oil and gas drilling, an activity that Mr. Graham once promoted outright and that he has more recently said should be left up to the states.

“There are some things that cross partisan lines, and protecting our beaches and waterways and tourism should be nonpartisan,” said Rep. Joe Cunningham (D., S.C.), who flipped a Republican seat by picking up support in the Charleston suburbs over his endorsement of an offshore-drilling ban, a play that Mr. Harrison is attempting to run as well. Mr. Graham responded to attack ads on the issue by persuading Mr. Trump to include South Carolina in a moratorium on offshore drilling.

But Mr. Graham now has a major issue to promote: helping Mr. Trump get his picks onto the Supreme Court. Mr. Graham solidified his standing with Republicans two years ago with his defense of Justice Kavanaugh, who was accused by a woman of sexually assaulting her, an allegation that he strenuously denied. Saying Democrats tried to “destroy this guy’s life, hold this seat open and hope you win in 2020,” Mr. Graham seethed at them, “Boy, you all want power. God, I hope you never get.”

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“That was certainly the lightning rod, the big event that put Lindsey up there as a rock star for conservatives,” said Stephen Brown, a former chairman of the Greenville County Republican Party, who said that in the past he has had falling outs with Mr. Graham over issues like immigration but now backs his re-election bid.

Mr. Graham has tried to capitalize on the moment. When the D.C. chapter of the progressive Sunrise Movement protested at his house over the Supreme Court nomination, Mr. Graham publicized the protest on Facebook.

“I don’t know what it is about me and moments and lightning, but lightning has struck again,” Mr. Graham said at a campaign event that day.

Write to Siobhan Hughes at [email protected]

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