South Carolina Senate debate scrapped after virus testing fight

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The second debate in the suddenly red-hot South Carolina Senate race was abruptly canceled Friday over disagreement about whether three-term GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham should be tested for the coronavirus before appearing on stage in close proximity with his Democratic challenger, Jaime Harrison.

Instead of sharing the stage as they did last week, the two candidates traded one-sided shots in separate, 30-minute interviews with the moderators.

Harrison said it would not be responsible to debate Graham if the senator declined to take a coronavirus test after potential exposure from other Republican senators who have tested positive for the virus. During the debate-turned-candidate forum, he said that as someone who has a pre-existing condition, he wanted “leaders to actually lead by example.”

“The president of the United States has been out of pocket because he has the coronavirus,” Harrison said, in response to questions from the panel of moderators. “Sen. Graham said that folks want special treatment. Nobody is asking for special treatment. What we’re asking for is our senior senator to take this seriously.”

Graham, indeed, accused Harrison of seeking special treatment by demanding that all participants test negative for the virus prior to debating. The Republican senator argued most South Carolinians go to work and interact with individuals who have not been tested, and he said he had been told by his doctor he would be compliant with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control even if he did not take a test.

“To those of you who work for a living, you can’t do what Mr. Harrison has demanded tonight. You can’t not show up to work because you want everybody tested whether they need to or not,” Graham said. “This is not about testing. This is about political accountability, and the great loss tonight was a debate.”

The bizarre circumstances for their second would-be debate mirrored the fight over the second presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. After the debate commission said next week’s meeting between Trump, who was hospitalized earlier this week with the virus, and Biden would be held with the candidates in separate locations and connected virtually, Trump pulled out of the debate, leading to its cancellation on Friday.

The Graham-Harrison debate-turned-forum — which was held at a TV studio in Spartanburg, S.C., and aired on local stations in markets across most of the state — was just the latest development in a chaotic race that has shattered fundraising records and become one of the most closely-watched and competitive contests in the country. Harrison, a former Democratic state party chair, has outraised and outspent Graham by an enormous margin, and the race has been highly competitive despite the state’s red tilt.

Graham, who is seeking a fourth term in the Senate, has aimed to polarize the race along party lines, using red-meat issues in an effort to regain his natural advantage in the state. In particular, he has emphasized his perch as Judiciary Committee chair in the upcoming confirmation hearing for Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment to the Supreme Court. He said the hearings, which begin next week, would be held safely but would move forward. He said the Architect of the Capitol and House physician consulted on the hearing room set-up, and that the hearings would be run in a “medically compliant way.”

He also brushed aside accusations that it would be hypocritical to move forward on a nomination in an election year after Republicans blocked Merrick Garland’s nomination to the court four years ago.

“We’re moving forward. We’re doing nothing unusual here in terms of how the Senate operates,” Graham said, even after moderators played a clip of him previously saying he would not move a nomination in an election year.

Harrison said Barrett was qualified for her confirmation to the appellate court on which she currently serves, but that he would have questions for her before determining if she was qualified for the Supreme Court. He said hopefully those questions will be answered in the upcoming hearings.

“But we shouldn’t even be talking about confirmation hearings right now, if we would listen to Lindsey Graham and follow his word,” Harrison said.

Harrison and Graham’s third and final debate is currently scheduled for Oct. 21.

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