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Lindsey Graham Will Test the Limits of Republican Extremism

That Lindsey Graham continues to represent the good people of South Carolina as a U.S. senator is, on some level, surprisingly progressive for the Palmetto State. Yes, he frequently holds court on Sunday talk shows and on the Senate floor to criticize Hillary Clinton’s response to the attack in Benghazi and President Obama’s Middle East strategy. He has a 0 percent rating from the ACLU, Human Rights Campaign, and NARAL Pro-Choice America, and has a 100 percent rating from the National Right to Life Committee.

But Graham, who announced his candidacy for president on Monday, is also given to compromise, a fierce Tea Party opponent, and a major advocate of legislation that would address climate change and immigration reform. Some believe his re-election last November should have been instructive to the GOP, demonstrating that conservatives shouldn’t be afraid to campaign on compromise and increasingly moderate policies.

But can Graham’s success against a slew of weak challengers in the 2014 midterms be replicated, at least in his home state’s primary, against 2016's field of conservative firebrands? And, more to the point, can it be replicated without Graham downplaying or even disavowing his heterodox positions and willingness to compromise?

If it can be replicated, it could have a transformative effect on the Republican primary, possibly breaking the right wing's refusal to bend on these crucial issues. But it’s just as likely that the GOP primary electorate is so uncompromising in its conservatism that Graham, in bucking the party line, gets humiliated in his home state. And if that happens, it could create a foothold in the South for exactly the kind of candidate Graham hopes to freeze out.

When Graham announced his candidacy, he hinted at bipartisanship: “I want to be president to help us build a future greater than our amazing past. And I’ll work with anyone to do it.” The problem is that a lot of Republicans, even among his constituents, apparently don’t believe in that rhetoric, or take issue with Graham beyond that.

An April 2015 Winthrop University poll of nearly 1000 residents of South Carolina found that close to 55 percent of respondents “would not consider voting for” Graham as a presidential candidate. Of the 13 other Republican nomination hopefuls listed for the respondents, the only person South Carolinians were less likely to consider voting for was Donald Trump. Thirty-seven percent said they would consider voting for Graham, but Jeb Bush, Senator Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Senator Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Senator Marco Rubio, and Governor Scott Walker were all more likely to be considered.

When confronted with the results of that poll in April, Graham apparently “shrugged off the numbers,” according to The Washington Post. He told the paper, “If I’m on the ballot, I’m going to win South Carolina.” It’s not a ludicrous assertion. The effect of home-state loyalty in presidential elections is statistically significant, though only under some circumstances. And Graham’s 2014 victory could reasonably give him a sense of security at home: Despite early concerns that Graham was vulnerable to a more conservative challenger because of his standing as a bipartisan compromiser, he won with nearly 55 percent of the vote.

However, Graham’s success last year may say less about his popularity than a lack of a strong alternative. In 2014, the most viable conservative Republicans had taken themselves out of the contention. Jim DeMint left the U.S. Senate to run a conservative advocacy group, and his appointed successor, Tim Scott, was the one rival that Graham would have had to sweat—had DeMint not retired early. In the end, Graham’s challengers in 2014, individually, didn’t stand a chance against the senator. The South Carolina presidential primary, by contrast, will be contested by some of the most established conservative politicians in the country.

So while Graham has a home-state advantage in South Carolina, he also has a decent chance of losing there, especially if he continues to play up his bipartisan track record and is perceived as a Washington insider. His constituents might generally (58.2 percent) approve of how he “is handling his job as a United States Senator,” according to the Winthrop poll, but that doesn’t necessarily mean those who re-elected him last November think he would make a good president, or that he could be a viable conservative candidate. His perceived successes as a senator could even hurt his chances at home; his constituents may not want to risk losing Graham’s advocacy on their behalf in the Senate, especially if they’re also intrigued by the prospect of a different presidential candidate, like Walker or Bush. And if Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp's push for a “SEC” primary on March 1 continues to draw in southeastern states—the idea being to increase the region’s national influence by moving primaries up to that date—then a Tea Party candidate like Cruz could build momentum by winning a couple of southern states, and may have a shot at taking South Carolina from Graham.

Whoever wins South Carolina could have serious influence over whom Republicans ultimately nominate. As CNN's Peter Hamby reported in March: 

“Palmetto State Republicans cherish their role as the first southern primary. And for six straight contested primaries beginning with Ronald Reagan's win there in 1980, the state winnowed the early field and correctly picked the eventual nominee, always the preferred choice of the GOP establishment.”

That said, the state did recently make the wrong call. In 2012, Newt Gingrich, not Mitt Romney, won South Carolina. (Romney came in second.)

That Graham’s campaign announcement Monday took place outside his childhood home in Central, South Carolina, hints that Graham is aware of his reputation in South Carolina and wants to remind potential voters of his roots. He presented himself as one of them, crediting his upbrining in South Carolina with “[making] me the man I am today.” He continued, “I’m a man with many debts to my family, to you, to South Carolina and to the country. I’m running for president to repay those debts, to fight as hard for you as you fought for me.” But he also didn’t sugarcoat his stance on energy policy, which is easily the most progressive of any Republican campaigning. “To those who yearn for a safe and healthy environment, I will join your cause. To those who seek energy independence, I will be your champion,” he said. “We must have energy independence,” he insisted a moment later, “And in the process, I believe it is possible to produce a safe, clean environment, and create new well-paying jobs for Americans of all generations.”

That is, Graham embraced his progressive positions and his reputation for bipartisanship while simultaneously trying to convince South Carolinians that he's one of them—even if he is, admittedly, very different from the rest of the GOP primary pack. The suspense lies in whether or not the state's Republicans voters will buy it.