How Lindsey Graham outmaneuvered the tea party
By: Manu Raju
April 23, 2014 05:07 AM EDT
Part of an occasional series on the hottest races of the 2014 midterm election.
SUMMERVILLE, S.C. — Sen. Lindsey Graham recognized the threat years before it had a chance to form — and knew immediately what he had to do.
After the tea party wave in the 2010 election, right-wing groups were itching to get one of South Carolina’s newly elected conservative congressmen to challenge Graham, the blunt-spoken, deal-making congressional veteran of two decades. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a favorite of the grass roots, was high on their list.
So when Graham got wind in 2012 that Mulvaney wanted a seat on the House Financial Services Committee, he quietly lobbied his longtime friend, Speaker John Boehner, to make it happen. During regular dinners and breakfast meetings, the senator made clear to Mulvaney and other up-and-comers in the delegation that he was there to help with their districts’ needs. All the while, Graham was busy assembling a daunting multimillion-dollar political operation.
Lo and behold, Mulvaney and others thought better of taking on Graham when the time came. “Not being able to win is a really good reason not to run,” Mulvaney said in an interview.
Graham’s deft maneuvering shows why he’s become the dominant political figure in this deeply red state and is skating to another six years even as he’s angered the base on immigration and other hot-button issues. Far from pandering to the party’s tea party wing in order to get reelected, he’s challenging it head-on: Graham warns that the GOP is caught in a “death spiral” with minorities, says it needs to get real about climate change and defends his move to open debate on gun control legislation after a school massacre.
His legwork to protect his seat could serve as a model for other endangered incumbents looking to fend off more conservative challengers.
“There’s a head wind for all incumbents,” Graham, 58, said over a dinner of chicken livers and fried green tomatoes in nearby Charleston last week. “I’ve tried to insulate myself.”
The losses of GOP Sens. Bob Bennett of Utah in 2010 then Dick Lugar of Indiana two years later showed how longtime incumbents who look unbeatable can be upended in primaries by more conservative challengers.
“Perhaps I was not as concerned as I should have been about the challenge in my primary,” Lugar said in a recent interview.
No GOP incumbent on the ballot this fall has done more to heed that lesson than Graham. Even as he cruises in the polls, the senator has blanketed the state with more than $1 million worth of ads promoting his work. He faces several lesser-known, underfunded candidates — including state Sen. Lee Bright, pastor Det Bowers, businessman Richard Cash, attorney Bill Connor, attorney Benjamin Dunn and Nancy Mace, a consultant and the first female graduate from The Citadel military college — in the June 10 primary.
They’re trying to keep Graham under 50 percent and trigger a runoff, which would give Republican outside groups that have sat out the race a chance to rally behind a single candidate and potentially hurt Graham.
But his opponents have not demonstrated much viability. One of them even credited Graham with ensuring a lackluster GOP field.
“I think he’s done a good job of keeping these congressional candidates out of the race,” Bright said, pointing to Reps. Mark Sanford and Jeff Duncan as primary opponents who could have provided “such a contrast that Graham could have been in trouble.”
Asked if he jumped into the race because no one in the congressional delegation would, Bright said: “I really didn’t want to do it. Of course I didn’t want to run for state Senate either. I hate this stuff.”
As he travels the state attending rallies offering free barbecues and breakfasts, with crowds larger than any he’s experienced during his career, Graham repeats a warning you wouldn’t expect to hear in a GOP primary: Republicans need to be more inclusive and to work with Democrats or risk becoming a party that can’t win national elections. He said it repeatedly to a Summerville Country Club crowd of 350 people and the next day to 100 seniors gathered at a retirement community in Charleston.
“You know who wants 30 pure Republicans? Harry Reid,” Graham said, referring to the oft-quoted line from his former South Carolina colleague, Jim DeMint, that the party would be better served with 30 rock-ribbed conservatives than 60 who aren’t. “What I want is a party that can grow. … What’s my big sin: 1-in-10 [votes defecting from the party line]? If we’re going to build the party around universal agreement, we become a club.”
Building the Graham machine
Soon after helping his close friend John McCain’s presidential bid in 2008, as the tea party began to show its strength in 2010, Graham began preparing for what an aide called “Armageddon.” He enlisted an army of paid staff and volunteers — including some 5,200 precinct captains — to help build six regional offices throughout the state.
And he amassed a staggering war chest, aimed partly at scaring off prospective opponents. Many donors have been reluctant to give money to anyone but Graham for fear they will be blacklisted by the senior senator, his adversaries said. And some big-dollar contributors are starting to put money behind a Graham-allied super PAC created by a former state party chairman, Katon Dawson.
Through the end of the first quarter, Graham had raised $11.6 million with nearly $7 million remaining — none of his opponents have cracked the half-million-dollar mark. Even though Graham’s periodic defections from the conservative line have landed him in hot water — his support for President Barack Obama’s two Supreme Court nominees and flirtation with proposals controlling climate change were three such occasions — the senator said his fundraising has been bolstered by his reputation as a voice of reason in the Capitol.
“Ideological people don’t give you a whole lot of money,” Graham said.
Also key to Graham’s approach is how meticulously he tends to the details, from constituent service to reaching out to local politicians. Any major meeting of South Carolina business types is likely to have a Graham aide on hand. He is known to treat problems at a water treatment facility or an effort to deepen the Port of Charleston every bit as seriously as a debate over Benghazi on the Senate floor.
Graham says his service-oriented approach is a “lost art” in politics. It’s modeled, he said, after the late-Sen. Strom Thurmond, who served in office for half a century before Graham left the House to fill his seat in 2002.
“How did he go to being the Dixiecrat candidate to winning an election where he got more African-American votes than anybody in the South?” Graham said. “I think the average person thought if he could help you, he would.”
Graham is a presence at virtually every major party event — even in crowds hostile to his politics. At least eight county chapters have censured Graham for cutting deals with Democrats, but he and his staff are not afraid to show up at events before his detractors.
“We have somebody from his campaign at every one of our meetings — all the time,” said Jordan Bryngelson, chairman of the Dorchester County Republican Party, who has resisted calls to censure Graham. “They are sort of everywhere, truthfully.”
All the while, Graham has ingratiated himself to candidates at the local level by offering political advice while raising cash for the party. He’s donated more than $150,000 to the South Carolina Republican Party through his campaign and political action committee accounts over the past dozen years and repeatedly headlined big-dollar events, including one with the state’s congressional delegation next month on Capitol Hill that’s expected to bring in at least $50,000.
It’s not just fundraising; Graham has gone out of his way to befriend potential rivals. People like Trey Gowdy, a second-term congressman from the state who is widely viewed as a potential future federal judge — an appointment that would require Graham’s consent in the Senate. Or Rep. Tom Rice, who had Graham along with him on the stump when the freshman congressman ran in his Myrtle Beach district in 2012.
And when Sanford was immersed in a sex scandal in 2009 during his tenure as governor, Graham remained mostly silent — even though many lawmakers in both parties were throwing Sanford to the wolves. Such an approach may have endeared himself to Sanford; it also helps that Graham is godfather to one of Sanford’s children.
Perhaps most critically, Graham has formed an alliance with Sen. Tim Scott, a tea party favorite who was appointed to the Senate in January 2013 after DeMint resigned his seat. The low-profile freshman won’t publicly endorse Graham, a sign of how controversial the senior senator remains in some quarters of the party. But nor will Scott criticize Graham.
“I have a primary — that’s where my focus is,” Scott said about a Graham endorsement.
Graham’s message to the tea party
What may be most remarkable about Graham is his refusal to tack to the right as his reelection approached; in fact, he relishes telling his skeptics on the right why they’re wrong. After avoiding debating his primary opponents, Graham — the first in his Baptist family to graduate college and son of a liquor store owner near Clemson University — said in the interview that he would join them in a candidate forum “very soon.”
When a woman at the seniors community center in Charleston asked him whether Congress should move to impeach Obama, the senator said simply: “How many of you believe that if you tried to impeach the president, we would probably lose in 2014?” Graham raised his hand.
No matter the venue, Graham, unprompted, brings up his support of Obama’s nominations of Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Senators, he argued, should weigh only nominees’ qualifications, not their ideological bent. He warns flatly that wealthier taxpayers should give up some of their Medicare benefits and workers should be prepared to see their retirement age increased. And he openly floats the idea of a grand bargain deal to rein in deficits, which could very well increase taxes and trigger a revolt on the right.
“How many of you believe the reason we’re going to win [Senate seats] has got more to do with them screwing up than us?” Graham said at the Summerville Country Club, as he raised his left hand. “I don’t know if I’d clap for that, but that’s true.”
Republicans, Graham argued, need to prove they are “for something before November and not just against Obama.”
“I got the crap beat out of me because of immigration” in a state with just a 5 percent Latino population, he said, adding that the GOP has to take those kinds of risks if it wants to win the White House again.
The party, he said in a follow-up interview, is currently on a “death spiral” with nonwhite voters — a problem he acknowledged last week before crowds of all-white voters attending his own events. But a conservative message can sell with minority voters, Graham added, if the party can move past immigration and other issues that have been disqualifying.
Graham, in the interview, was unapologetic about his unsuccessful attempt to cut a deal with Democrats on controlling climate change. Humans, he said, “to some extent, absolutely” are contributing to global warming and the GOP needs a rational environmental policy, with a heavy emphasis on nuclear power.
He also shot back at opponents who criticized his vote to open debate on gun legislation last year. The “dumbest thing” the GOP could have done, Graham said, would have been to block debate over the issue after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. (He said Republicans ended up winning the debate after he joined his party in defeating all the Democratic gun control measures.)
Graham has established himself as a leading foreign policy hawk in Congress — a clear boon to him in South Carolina, with its major defense industry presence. The ongoing controversies over Benghazi and Ukraine have given Graham a prominent platform to espouse those views.
Graham’s willingness to buck the GOP has put him to the left of tea party-aligned voters like Ed Robbins, a retired engineer from Charleston.
But asked if he would vote for Graham if the primary were held tomorrow, Robbins said: “Of course. Because what’s the alternative?”