Already facing the prospect of a primary challenge in 2014, National Journal's 2012 Vote Ratings are hardly good news for Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., placing him in the bottom third of Republican senators when it comes to a conservative voting record.
However, Graham has made strides over the last year. He moved up from the 42nd most conservative senator in our 2011 ratings to 33rd on this year's list. Graham has moved to the right on fiscal issues, according to the ratings. In 2011, he voted more conservatively than 63 percent of his colleagues on economic issues, but in 2012 that number jumped to 90 percent. That places him almost on the level with former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., the conservative firebrand who stepped down in January to take over the Heritage Foundation. DeMint's record on the economy was more conservative than 96 percent of his colleagues for his final full year in office. DeMint was the Senate's third most conservative member overall.
Though Graham has been a vocal opponent of the administration's foreign policy, his voting record places him in the middle of the pack on those issues. National Journal's ratings found that Graham voted more conservatively than just 61 percent of his colleagues on foreign policy, up from 56 percent in 2011. That's true for social issues as well, where Graham flatlined, voting more conservatively than 62 percent of his fellow senators, the same score he received in 2011.
At the same time, Graham has become more vocal on foreign policy this year, even as he has staked out more moderate positions on social issues, particularly immigration. That's angered some South Carolina Republicans who have talked about primarying him for his seat. In fact, state Sen. Lee Bright, a Ron Paul-style Republican, cited Graham's involvement in a bipartisan group of senators who are working on immigration reform in announcing that he is considering challenging Graham next year.
The vulnerability on immigration is nothing new to Graham, who faced major backlash during his 2008 reelection for going out on a limb on the issue. Radio host Rush Limbaugh at the time took to calling him, "Lindsey Grahamnesty." But, says former state Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson, Graham may have picked the right moment. "This is a different debate in a different time," said Dawson. "There's not a national outcry on amnesty or illegal immigration," Dawson said, though he cautioned that it could become an issue later on in the cycle, depending on how the debate progresses.
Dawson and other state Republicans are in the process of setting up a super PAC to defend Graham against the possibility of a primary challenge. Dawson that Graham fully expects to face another Republican next year, whether it is Bright or another contender. Already, the Club for Growth has put Graham at the top of its target list for the cycle, and its state chapter has backed Bright in past legislative races. "Lee is a serious competitor," Dawson said of Bright. "He's a very conservative senator from the right part of the state. ... I think Senator Graham certainly expects some serious competition."
Despite Graham's vulnerability, Bright appears to be the only contender waiting in the wings, at least for now. Conservative wish lists have dwindled recently, as Republican after Republican has opted not to take on the state's senior senator. All of the state's Republicans in Congress have ruled out a run for the Senate in 2014, confirming their plans to On Call, with the exception of Rep. Trey Gowdy, whose office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.