By Tom Baxter

The image which most powerfully captures the dynamics of this year’s battle for control of the U.S. Senate came from the televised debate Saturday night in Columbia, S.C., between U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison.

Hours after a third Republican senator announced he had tested positive for COVID-19, Harrison brought a plexiglass divider to the debate and put it up between his podium and Graham’s. The Republican incumbent had already announced that his COVID test had come back negative, but the divider remained during the debate as a silent reminder of the issue which looms over every big race in the country.

Harrison’s fundraising and early poll numbers have been drawing notice around the country since early in this race, with little expectation that an African-American Democrat could go the final mile against even so wounded an incumbent as Graham. It has been one of those “if it’s close here, it must really be bad elsewhere” kind of races. But in this early October debate Harrison was confidant and on the offensive while Graham looked off balance and on his heels. Who knows how much the divider had to do with that.

“They hate me,” Graham said about the out-of-state money rolling in for his Democratic opponent. “This is not about Mr. Harrison. This is about liberals hating my guts… This is about me helping Donald Trump.”  He sounded just a little more plaintive, standing next to that divider.

Raphael Warnock’s race in the special election to complete the term of Sen. Johnny Isakson — the jungle primary — has evolved much differently than Harrison’s race in our neighboring state. Warnock trailed both Sen. Kelly Loeffler and her GOP challenger, Rep. Doug Collins, in early polls and seemed in danger of falling out of sight.

It’s only one poll, but last week’s Quinnipiac University poll showing Warnock moving into a solid lead in this race should have attracted more national attention. There are bound to be picks about the methodology in this particular poll, which also shows Joe Biden hitting the crucial 50 percent mark in the presidential race in Georgia. But the fact that Loeffler has turned her well-funded advertising artillery away from Collins and on Warnock speaks louder than the poll.

In some ways this is just the race catching up with itself. In a hotly contested presidential election year, a runoff between two Republicans was always going to be unlikely. Now, if you believe the Quinnipiac poll, Loeffler and Collins are still within two points of each other, but several points behind Warnock.

The poll also shows Sen. David Perdue and John Ossoff in a very close race, raising the possibility Libertarian Shane Hazel could shave off enough votes to prevent a majority in that race, keeping alive the possibility of a dual U.S. Senate runoff in January.

After President Trump announced his impending departure from Walter Reed Medical Center Monday, Loeffler tweeted a video of Trump tackling someone with a COVID head, and the legend “COVID stood NO chance against Donald Trump!”

Given how much has been said about the unpredictable nature of the virus and the mood swings described by those who have taken dexamethasone, the steroid the president is taking, that tweet seems a little riskier than Loeffler’s earlier valentines to the president.

Trump, on some “really great drugs,” tweeted about the same time that he felt better than he did 20 years ago, and advised Americans not to let COVID dominate their lives. That leaves three U.S. senators, a former governor, his campaign manager, his press secretary and several other spreader event attendees still to be accounted for, with more people likely to be reporting positive over the next few days.

Late Monday it was announced that at the request of Sen. Kamela Harris’s campaign, a plexiglass divider will also be erected for Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate between Harris and Vice President Mike Pence. We can expect to see more Democrats showing up at debates with plexiglass in the closing weeks of the campaign. The days ahead will tell us whether every Republican remains as confident in the president’s health as Loeffler.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern...

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