Hours before a second scheduled debate between U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison, event organizers changed the format to back-to-back, one-on-one interviews following a day of campaign clashes over COVID-19 that stirred doubts of whether the matchup would go on at all.
On its website, WSPA-TV, the station hosting the event, said Friday afternoon that Graham and Harrison “will each take part in individual interviews” that evening and answer questions from a moderator and panelists.
Harrison had threatened to tank the debate, scheduled for 7 p.m. in Spartanburg, over concerns related to Graham’s exposure to other GOP senators who have recently tested positive for COVID-19. In a statement, Harrison, an associate Democratic National Committee chairman, demanded that Graham be tested before the meeting, saying that he and moderators had already agreed to do so and that he wouldn’t “allow politics to put my family, my campaign staff, Sen. Graham’s staff, and members of the media at unnecessary risk.”
Graham campaign officials pointed out that Harrison had not demanded testing before sitting down with reporters from The Post and Courier newspaper for an event Wednesday. Saying he had “taken the coronavirus threat to our state and nation very seriously,” Graham said he would attend the debate regardless.
“What has changed is not the seriousness of coronavirus — what has changed is the threat Mr. Harrison faces from scrutiny,” Graham said. “Whether Mr. Harrison attends tomorrow’s debate is his decision, not mine. I will be there.”
In a subsequent statement, Harrison said the test would “give peace of mind” to those who have come into contact with Graham since his meetings with other Senate Republicans who have tested positive for coronavirus.
Graham said both campaigns had agreed to rules to abide by federal recommendations concerning the coronavirus and have their temperatures taken before the debate. No live audiences are permitted for any of the meetings, and media attendance is limited.
On Friday, Graham’s campaign said the incumbent would talk to reporters and activists on-site ahead of his interview. Harrison spokesman Guy King said in a statement that the campaign was “disappointed that Lindsey has failed to take a simple coronavirus test” but was glad the event could be salvaged in a new format.
The pandemic played a central role in Graham and Harrison’s first meeting last week, when Harrison used a plexiglass partition on the side of his podium facing Graham, something he said was needed due to Graham’s exposure to the senators and also to President Donald Trump, who was recently hospitalized for COVID-19 treatment.
Both candidates tested negative before the first debate, and Graham has said that the physician who oversees the health of members of Congress noted Thursday that he does not require additional testing.
A third debate is scheduled for later this month, although Washington politics may complicate that schedule. As Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, it’s Graham’s job to shepherd Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, through the Senate. Hearings begin Monday, despite the refrain from other legislative work called by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after several senators’ positive COVID-19 tests.
The race between Graham and Harrison has tightened, with surveys showing the candidates in a dead heat, and both campaigns raising more than $30 million apiece, also aided by tens of millions in additional spending from outside groups. In the two days following the debate, Harrison raked in $1.5 million, with donors across the country noting on social media they would keep the money flowing into a race that’s become among the most closely watched this cycle.
Trump carried South Carolina by double digits over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Republicans control both legislative chambers, all statewide offices and most of the state’s congressional seats. South Carolina is assumed to be safely in his re-election column.
Meg Kinnard can be reached at https://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.
AP’s Advance Voting guide brings you the facts about voting early, by mail or absentee from each state: https://interactives.ap.org/advance-voting-2020/