Why Lindsey Graham Avoided Eric Cantor’s Fate

Both were criticized over their positions on immigration reform, but Graham regularly returned home to campaign.

Sen. Lindsey Graham.
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
June 10, 2014, 5:20 p.m.

Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell wrote the book on how to out­man­euver con­ser­vat­ive op­pos­i­tion in primar­ies, by tack­ing to the right and at­tack­ing early and of­ten. But Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, an­oth­er per­en­ni­al Re­pub­lic­an tar­get, proved there’s an­oth­er way to get re­nom­in­ated — de­feat­ing his crit­ics through kind­ness.

Against six less­er-known op­pon­ents, Gra­ham com­fort­ably won Tues­day’s South Car­o­lina primary, avoid­ing a run­off with 59 per­cent of the vote. It’s the second straight primary where Gra­ham won over­whelm­ingly des­pite vo­cal con­ser­vat­ive op­pos­i­tion over his ad­vocacy for com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form. In both cases, the con­ser­vat­ive bark was louder than its bite.

But Gra­ham’s vic­tory was also aided by as­sidu­ous at­ten­tion to con­stitu­ent ser­vice, pay­ing fa­vors to his South Car­o­lina Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues, an early and re­lent­less fo­cus on fun­drais­ing, and a hawk­ish re­cord on for­eign policy that con­ser­vat­ives in the mil­it­ary-rich state ral­lied be­hind.

All told, he scared off any cred­ible op­pos­i­tion, even from a long-shot out­sider. Since last win­ning reelec­tion in 2008, Gra­ham raised an im­pos­ing $12 mil­lion in pre­par­a­tion for this cam­paign, which he’s used to swarm the state with ads tout­ing his ac­com­plish­ments. None of the six more-con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans from the state’s con­gres­sion­al del­eg­a­tion was con­sidered a chal­lenge, and none of them re­ceived enough grass­roots sup­port to even mount a cred­ible threat. Even the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund, sup­por­ted by former Sen. Jim De­Mint of South Car­o­lina, stayed out of the race des­pite back­ing long-shot chal­lengers to oth­er Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors.

“When the mem­bers of the con­gres­sion­al del­eg­a­tion needed something for their dis­trict, their first call was to Lind­sey Gra­ham and it was to his cell phone. Lind­sey Gra­ham has been ac­cess­ible to that fed­er­al del­eg­a­tion from day one. He’s helped them get com­mit­tee as­sign­ments, too,” said former South Car­o­lina Re­pub­lic­an Party Chair­man Katon Dawson, who is run­ning a su­per PAC back­ing Gra­ham. “In polit­ics, you don’t want to be a lonely politi­cian — and Lind­sey Gra­ham will nev­er be that kind of politi­cian.”

Un­like oth­er tar­geted Re­pub­lic­ans who have rebranded them­selves in the run-up to an elec­tion, Gra­ham has stuck to his mod­er­ate prin­ciples on im­mig­ra­tion (he sup­ports com­pre­hens­ive re­form), the en­vir­on­ment (he’s ar­gued cli­mate change needs to be ad­dressed), and Su­preme Court justices (he voted to con­firm So­nia So­to­may­or and Elena Kagan on the prin­ciple that sen­at­ors should judge on qual­i­fic­a­tions, not ideo­logy). In con­trast to sev­er­al oth­er en­dangered Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors who spend most of their time in Wash­ing­ton — neigh­bor­ing Sen. Thad Co­chran, who’s at risk of los­ing a run­off this month, is a prime ex­ample — Gra­ham reg­u­larly re­turns home on week­ends to ral­lies, party events, and Amer­ic­an Le­gion posts, where he tells well-wish­ers to greet him by his first name. “Every­one calls him Lind­sey back home, no one calls him Sen­at­or Gra­ham,” Dawson said.

“He’s nev­er fallen in­to the trap of be­com­ing Wash­ing­ton. He al­ways cam­paigned. He’s al­ways kept up high-pro­file ap­pear­ances back home. You don’t al­ways see that with sen­at­ors,” said vet­er­an South Car­o­lina Re­pub­lic­an strategist War­ren Tomp­kins. “All this talk and de­sire to get rid of him was gen­er­ated out­side the bor­ders of South Car­o­lina. And all that just ended up be­ing talk.”

In­deed, Gra­ham’s out­spoken cri­ti­cism of Pres­id­ent Obama’s for­eign policy has trumped any con­ser­vat­ive skit­tish­ness over his views on im­mig­ra­tion. He was one of the most vo­cal Re­pub­lic­ans to cri­ti­cize the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­sponse to the Benghazi at­tacks, and even warned that Obama could be sub­jec­ted to im­peach­ment if he re­leases any ad­di­tion­al pris­on­ers from Guantanamo Bay without con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al. He also led the GOP re­sponse on the scan­dal at the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment, com­par­ing vet­er­ans’ prob­lems ob­tain­ing timely health care ac­cess to what could hap­pen un­der Obama­care.

“All that drowned out his po­s­i­tion on im­mig­ra­tion”¦. Im­mig­ra­tion wasn’t that much of an is­sue here at all. There’s a bloc of voters that would nev­er vote for any­one based on im­mig­ra­tion po­s­i­tion, but that num­ber is di­min­ish­ing a bit,” Tomp­kins said. “When the eco­nomy went in the tank, the il­leg­als just dis­ap­peared.”

Gra­ham’s com­fort­able vic­tory is a test­a­ment to the fact that mas­ter­ing the fun­da­ment­als of polit­ics — strong re­la­tion­ships with col­leagues and main­tain­ing reg­u­lar con­nec­tions with voters — still plays an out­size role in win­ning elec­tions. As Slate‘s Dave Wei­gel poin­ted out, while many Re­pub­lic­ans have lately lost primar­ies for ideo­lo­gic­al reas­ons, a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber were de­feated be­cause they’re old. Co­chran might have won his primary against Chris McDaniel if he cam­paigned more vig­or­ously in the fi­nal week, but in­stead he faced late-break­ing ques­tions about his rusti­ness on the cam­paign trail.

That’s nev­er been an is­sue with Gra­ham.

“There’s a dif­fer­ence between be­ing at­tacked and step­ping on an IED. Oc­ca­sion­ally, the sen­at­or gets close to it,” Dawson said. “Or­gan­ic move­ments can catch a politi­cian who’s lazy and doesn’t pay at­ten­tion “¦ and that’s not the case in South Car­o­lina with Lind­sey Gra­ham. He works day and night.”

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