At the height of tea-party fever in spring 2010, Sen. Lindsey Graham walked out of talks on a bipartisan climate-change bill, saying he was angry about Democratic plans to move first on comprehensive immigration reform. It almost seemed like he was anticipating a hypothetical, hyperconservative primary challenger more than four years before his reelection race.
But now the South Carolina Republican is in the thick of bipartisan talks on immigration reforms that include a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants; making overtures on a fiscal "grand bargain" that would include higher taxes along with entitlement trims; and praising President Obama for reaching out to him and others in his party. On Wednesday, Graham held a press conference to announce a bipartisan bill to strengthen mental-health provisions in gun background checks. He also attended Obama’s dinner party with Republicans at a Washington hotel. In fact, Graham drew up the guest list.
In 2010, Graham's pal John McCain tacked hard right to fend off a tea-party challenger in Arizona. In 2012, Orrin Hatch did the same to survive in Utah. Graham could eventually back away from some of his bipartisan projects, and some skeptical Democrats expect he will. But for now he is gambling that changing times and his own political skills will keep him safe in 2014. And for now he is in a commanding position in his party. Among self-identified Republicans and GOP-leaning independents in a Winthrop University poll last month, he was at 71.6 percent approval.
Not surprisingly, no strong primary challenger to Graham has emerged. The antitax Club for Growth is keeping an eye on the race and will consider getting involved if a viable candidate surfaces, says spokesman Barney Keller. Graham scored 72 percent in the Club’s 2011 report card, close to what the group considers a “bottom-of-the-barrel” Republican. But he did better in 2012 and “obviously you can’t beat someone with no one,” Keller says. GOP consultants in the state predict Graham will have an opponent, but probably a weak one.
One of the most marked trends in South Carolina politics is the fade of the tea party. Only 5.5 percent of registered voters in the state said they considered themselves tea-party members in the Winthrop poll, down from 19.2 percent in October 2010. Back then, about half of registered voters said they agreed with tea-party principles. In last month’s poll, only 24.1 percent said they approved of the movement.
Even so, Graham is doing a careful balancing act. For every move toward compromise, he stakes out a position that appeals to his state’s most conservative voters. He touts his opposition to an assault-weapons ban and his thumbs-up rating as an “American Conservative Union conservative.”
He was a ruthless critic of Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Defense secretary. Among other things, he said Hagel would be would be the “most antagonistic” secretary in American history toward Israel. Graham himself is the administration’s chief antagonist on Benghazi. Conservatives in his state were very upset about the attacks and wanted more investigation of them, says political scientist Scott Huffmon, head of the Winthrop poll. “To me, that explains him leading the charge on Benghazi,” he says of Graham. “He had been accused of being weak on the tea party. He is trying to shore himself up.”
Even as Graham tends to his right flank, demographics are shifting his way. In the Charleston area and the spillover suburbs of Charlotte, N.C., high-income, high-education retirees and workers are strengthening the more traditional wing of the Republican Party. “They certainly don’t want somebody who’s ideologically intractable. They like a conservative but broad-minded approach,” says Huffmon. He says people like that could enlarge Graham’s base: “They’re receptive to his message, and he’s got the money to reach them.”
Attitudes as well as demographics are moving in Graham’s direction, most notably on immigration. “Some pragmatism and some realism has settled in across the whole spectrum of the Republican primary electorate” on immigration, in South Carolina and nationally, says Warren Tompkins, a Columbia-based Graham adviser who has worked on South Carolina campaigns for nearly 40 years. “The issue has come full circle back to more his line of thought in the beginning.”
Then there’s exasperation with Washington, which has not bypassed South Carolina. “Despite its hard red appearance, there are still people in our state who really do want government to work effectively and recognize that there’s going to be some give and take there,” says Chip Felkel, a Greenville-based strategist who is not working for Graham. “The perception across the state now is that you may not agree with everything he does, but he is trying to move the ball forward so people can get their money’s worth out of government.”
Which is why we will likely continue to see Graham all over Twitter, Sunday shows, and Capitol Hill making comments like these, a few hours before his dinner with Obama: “I want to compliment the president for reaching out … I hope it bears fruit. If we never talk to each other, I know exactly what’s going to happen. This country’s going to fail.”
But it’s complicated being Lindsey Graham, so we’ll also continue to see tweets like the one he sent just before announcing his new bipartisan background checks bill and heading off to dinner with Obama: “Just voted against the nomination of Caitlin Halligan to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.” Actually, under pressure from the right, he had voted to keep a filibuster going to block her nomination. That goes against his own principle of opposing filibusters on judicial nominations, perpetuates just the kind of Washington gridlock he decries in other circumstances, and gives prospective primary challengers one more reason to think twice about taking him on.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include Graham's improvement in the Club for Growth's 2012 rankings.
This article appears in the March 8, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.