Lindsey Graham Sitting Pretty Against Six Primary Foes

The senior senator from South Carolina faces little of the conservative push-back hitting his GOP colleague Thad Cochran.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) talks to reporters as he arrives at a closed door briefing June 4, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Officials from the Obama Administration were on the Hill to brief Senate members on the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. 
National Journal
Andrea Drusch
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Andrea Drusch
June 9, 2014, 5:30 p.m.

If Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham cruises through his primary race un­scathed — as he is ex­pec­ted to do Tues­day night — he will owe a big thank-you to Pres­id­ent Obama.

Once con­sidered a prime tar­get for con­ser­vat­ive groups, Gra­ham faces six op­pon­ents in the South Car­o­lina GOP primary but zero true com­pet­it­ors who pose a threat to his job. The out­side groups that have poured mil­lions in­to de­feat­ing Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Thad Co­chran in Mis­sis­sippi have ig­nored Gra­ham.

Gra­ham’s lack of com­pet­i­tion has a lot to do with his pro­act­ive cam­paign to fore­stall po­ten­tial chal­lenges from oth­er elec­ted of­fi­cials. But Gra­ham’s po­s­i­tion as one of Obama’s biggest, loudest for­eign policy crit­ics — and the free me­dia that comes with it — has also played a role, one that’s only got­ten big­ger in re­cent months as the White House’s for­eign policy agenda has got­ten more scru­tiny.

“There’s no ques­tion that the polit­ic­al tur­moil [the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion] dealt with has be­ne­fit­ted Gra­ham in this cam­paign,” said long­time South Car­o­lina polit­ic­al com­mu­nic­a­tions con­sult­ant Chip Felkel. “He was already a point guy on is­sues in terms of the mil­it­ary; is­sues [like Benghazi and Syr­ia] have fallen nicely in­to his hand, giv­en him great vis­ib­il­ity.”

For Gra­ham, that vis­ib­il­ity has been cru­cial. Fol­low­ing the Sept. 11, 2012, at­tack on the U.S. Con­su­late in Benghazi, the sen­at­or has ap­peared on TV and ra­dio shows count­less times cri­ti­ciz­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­sponse. In 2013, Gra­ham tied for fourth among law­makers as the most fre­quent Sunday show guest, ap­pear­ing 16 times, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by Rachel Mad­dow.

Gra­ham’s most re­cent TV ad fea­tures the can­did­ate say­ing his job is ask­ing “tough ques­tions” of the ad­min­is­tra­tion, in­clud­ing “look­ing for an­swers on Benghazi.”

In the fi­nal weeks be­fore his primary, Gra­ham was even threat­en­ing an im­peach­ment ef­fort over the White House’s pris­on­er swap for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Ber­g­dahl.

Gra­ham’s om­ni­scient pres­ence on Fox News has giv­en South Car­o­lina Re­pub­lic­ans a high-pro­file spokes­man who reg­u­larly gains na­tion­al at­ten­tion.

“Lind­sey has a lar­ger plat­form than most sen­at­ors in a small South­ern state,” said former Gra­ham cam­paign man­ager and Clem­son Uni­versity polit­ic­al sci­ence pro­fess­or Dav­id Wood­ard. “You’re a cit­izen who lives in a state of 4.5 mil­lion people that’s not na­tion­ally known, and you have a sen­at­or who gets a lot of na­tion­al pub­li­city and doesn’t em­bar­rass you. He can talk on a lot of for­eign policy is­sues where a lot of oth­er sen­at­ors can’t, and I think they like that.”

Of Gra­ham’s cur­rent chal­lengers, Wood­ard said they’d be “hard-pressed to find Syr­ia on a map.”

Wood­ard said Gra­ham’s pen­chant for the spot­light is noth­ing new. He made a name for him­self as a quot­able law­maker dur­ing his time in the House, es­pe­cially in the Mon­ica Lew­in­sky scan­dal, when he played a prom­in­ent role in the im­peach­ment hear­ings. He’s been known to drive to At­lanta early on Sunday morn­ings to get on those mar­quee shows.

For Gra­ham, a former Air Force col­on­el who is at home in front of the cam­era, an ad­min­is­tra­tion em­broiled in a hand­ful of con­tro­ver­sial for­eign policy moves has cre­ated a per­fect op­por­tun­ity.

“We have a strong mil­it­ary his­tory and a lot of mil­it­ary re­tir­ees and sev­er­al bases still in the state,” Felkel said. “We’d be dis­ap­poin­ted if our elec­ted of­fi­cials, par­tic­u­larly at the fed­er­al level, didn’t keep na­tion­al de­fense on the fore­front of what they’re talk­ing about.”

Between Septem­ber 2013 and June 2014, the num­ber of voters who told Clem­son Uni­versity’s Pal­metto poll they would reelect Gra­ham re­gard­less of his op­pon­ent rose from 31 per­cent to 46 per­cent.

Polit­ic­al moves that run con­trary to the agen­das of some con­ser­vat­ive groups, such as Gra­ham’s work on im­mig­ra­tion re­form, have up­set many con­ser­vat­ives. Nine county Re­pub­lic­an parties have held a vote of no con­fid­ence for the sen­at­or. But out­side of the party’s act­iv­ist groups, Gra­ham has many voters nod­ding their heads with him as he cri­ti­cizes of the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“If you watch Lind­sey’s pat­tern in Wash­ing­ton, he al­ways has a con­ser­vat­ive is­sue he’s work­ing on if he’s do­ing any­thing that would be con­sidered un­right­eous in the South,” Wood­ard said. “If he’s deal­ing with im­mig­ra­tion or cap and trade, he’s also in there do­ing something for vet­er­ans or com­plain­ing about Obama­care. He is care­ful to make sure he has something to talk about that con­ser­vat­ives would nod along with.”

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