Lindsey Graham's challenger is spending far more on Facebook than any other Senate candidate

Key Points
  • Trying to unseat Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, Democrat Jaime Harrison has spent over $2 million in the past three month on Facebook ads.
  • Graham has spent about half that much on Facebook, and no other Senate candidate nationwide has reached seven digits since April.
  • Graham's seat remains a relative long shot for Democrats, but it's one of the races the party is targeting as it tries to win back a majority in the Senate. 

In this article

Jaime Harrison
Nathan Oullette | CQ-Roll Call | Getty Images

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was a vocal critic of candidate Donald Trump in 2016, before becoming one of the president's most loyal backers in Congress. In a surprisingly tight Senate race, Graham's challenger, Jaime Harrison, is investing big money on Facebook to remind voters of the flip-flop.

The Harrison campaign has spent $2.04 million on Facebook ads since April 22, according to Facebook's ads library, by far the most among any candidate running for U.S. Senate. Graham's campaign is second, doling out $1.01 million on Facebook over the past three months.

Graham, 65, has held his seat since 2003 and is among his party's leaders as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He was one of the many Republican candidates who went up against Trump four years ago in the presidential primary, describing him along the way as a "race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot" and "unfit for office."

"Lindsey will say anything, but he does nothing for South Carolina," Harrison says at the end of a recent Facebook ad, which shows Graham turning from Trump foe to friend.

James Hodges, a Democratic former governor of South Carolina, said he sees a Harrison ad every time he opens Facebook, many of them tying Graham to Trump.

"Graham has become a lightning rod for anti-Trump voters, and Harrison needs to remind those voters that he's in a competitive race against him, and find a way to keep them engaged and supportive," said Hodges, president of McGuireWoods Consulting in Columbia, South Carolina. "Facebook is the most efficient way."

Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., greets ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled Police Use of Force and Community Relations, in Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, June 16, 2020.
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

South Carolina hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1998, and Trump carried the state in 2016 by 9 percentage points. According to The Cook Political Report, the seat is likely to stay with Graham, and the latest poll from Gravis Marketing shows the incumbent ahead by 7 points.

But with Trump's approval numbers shrinking, due largely to his response to the coronavirus, Democrats see an opportunity to expand the competitive electoral map and pick up enough seats to take a majority in the Senate, where they currently trail 53 to 47, including two independents who caucus with the Democrats.

Harrison had raised $28.6 million for his campaign as of the end of June, third most among Democratic Senate candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Amy McGrath, who is taking on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, had raised $46.9 million, and former astronaut Mark Kelly, who is running against incumbent Martha McSally in Arizona, had pulled in $43.6 million.

After Harrison and Graham, the next biggest spender on Facebook ads is Kelly's campaign, which has shelled out $971,000 on ads. McConnell is fourth at $911,000, followed by McGrath at $897,000.

While many of Harrison's Facebook ads have been targeted specifically at residents in South Carolina, others have run across the country as part of an effort to reel in as much cash as possible. For example, in late May, Harrison ran a video asking people to contribute $5 to provide the "resources to beat Lindsey Graham," and another posting a poll that claimed Harrison was leading by 4 points. Both ads were shown more in California and New York than in any other state, according to Facebook's data. 

Harrison has recently focused more at home. In a video ad that started running this week for people in South Carolina, Harrison claims that as joblessness rises, Graham won't vote to extend Covid-related unemployment benefits.

Facebook's social problems

Harrison, 44, served as the chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party from 2013 to 2017, and was the first African American to hold that role. That could make Facebook a controversial platform for him.

In June, following the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, activist groups encouraged a widespread boycott of ads on Facebook until the platform takes steps to curtail hate speech. Verizon, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Starbucks and Diageo are among the companies that joined the "Stop Hate for Profit" campaign, agreeing to pause ads on Facebook at least during the month of July. 

Anti-Defamation League CEO on Facebook's meeting with ad boycott leaders
Anti-Defamation League CEO on Facebook's meeting with ad boycott leaders

Harrison hasn't publicly commented on the Facebook ad campaign, and his communications team did not respond to requests for comment. According to Facebook's data, the Harrison campaign spent $116,000 on ads from July 14 to July 20. Over that stretch, Graham's campaign spent $72,400.

"All campaigns are investing heavily in digital advertising during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Jaime Harrison's campaign is completely bankrolled by out-of-state liberals who hate Senator Graham," T.W. Arrighi, Graham's communications director, said in an email. "While Mr. Harrison may be able to raise nearly one-third of his money from the West Coast via Facebook ads, he's going to be sorely disappointed on Election Day when none of them can vote in South Carolina."

Graham's ads have also focused on reaching people in larger states. According to Facebook data, only 5% of Graham's spending on the site over the past three months has been in South Carolina, while Harrison has committed about 25% of his ad spending to his home state.

In late May, Graham ran a video on Facebook that reached far more people in Texas, Florida and California than in South Carolina. Graham said in the video that his opponent was the "only person to get money from Hillary Clinton's PAC." Onward Together, a political action committee founded by Clinton in 2017, contributed $5,000 to Harrison last year, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Earlier this month, Graham started running an ad featuring an interview he did with Sean Hannity of Fox News. In the clip, Hannity asks Graham who's providing Harrison with so much money. 

"Every liberal you can imagine," Graham said, before reeling off names like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Clinton. "I must be doing something right if all these people want to beat me."

The ad had its most significant viewership in Florida, Texas and New York.

WATCH: Facebook removes false ad that claims Sen. Graham supports Green New Deal

Facebook removes false ad that claims Sen. Graham supports Green New Deal
Facebook removes false ad that claims Sen. Graham supports Green New Deal