SENECA, SOUTH CAROLINA- Lindsey Graham is winning, and on his terms.
In a year when establishment Republicans are tacking hard to the right to win primaries against insurgent Tea Party challengers, the longtime South Carolina senator is taking the opposite approach.
Even with six Republicans challenging him from the right, Graham is unabashedly emphasizing his more moderate stands. And he’s pointedly not apologizing for them, including his vote for last year’s immigration bill that conservatives cast as “amnesty,” his support of President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees and his general desire to “get things done” and be a “problem solver.”
Ahead of his primary on Tuesday, Graham’s main message is that he is not part of the Tea Party, and he’s just fine with that. And that strategy appears to be working. Last year, it seemed that Graham was one of the most endangered GOP incumbents in the country, a Republican who likes to compromise from the state that has sent strong conservatives to Washington in recent years.
Now, the only question is when, not if, Graham will win the primary. Polls show he could get the required 50 percent of the vote on Tuesday, outright winning the nomination. Even if he narrowly misses that mark, Graham will be an overwhelming favorite in a June 22 runoff against whichever one of his underfunded conservative challengers finishes in second place.
“He isn’t going to have to apologize (to conservatives) for anything he’s done,” said David Woodard, a Clemson University political professor who helped conduct a recent poll that showed Graham winning 49 percent of likely Republican voters.
The poll showed Graham’s challengers, who include two lawyers, two businesspersons and a pastor, all far behind. State Sen. Lee Bright was at 9 percent, the highest of Graham’s opponents, while a third of the GOP electorate was undecided.
Graham spent Monday campaigning in five cities in the state, eager to avoid the runoff, finishing by attending a picnic in this small town (population 8,000) where the 58-year-old lives.
As he went table-by table, hugging longtime supporters while telling kids he greeted “sorry about Social Security” with a wry smile, Graham was also doing a little bragging.
One of his supporters asked the senator about Saturday’s debate between the GOP Senate candidates.
Graham replied confidently, “I didn’t back off from being me.”
In the primary’s first and only debate, Graham’s opponents had blasted his moderate stands, with businessman Richard Cash repeatedly invoking the phrase “Grahamnesty.”
The senator didn’t back down. Asked his view of the Tea Party, Graham argued the GOP had “given away” four Senate seats in the last two election cycles by nominating strong conservative candidates, some championed by the Tea Party, who couldn’t win their general elections. He defended his votes for Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, saying “how do we get all of our judges and they never get theirs?” Immigration, Graham said, “is not a problem that is going to get fixed by yelling about it.”
That confrontational tone was not an accident: Graham is trying to frame his success here as a broader message to the Republican Party.
“What is conservatism? Is Ronald Reagan’s form of conservatism, 80 percent agreement’s a good thing, is that okay or do you have to be 100 percent all the time? I got a feeling tomorrow we’re going to hear a loud, ‘keep it up Lindsey. It’s okay to solve a problem, we know you’re a conservative,'” he told reporters here.
“I think it’s a referendum on the kind of conservatism I bring to the table,” he added.
In truth, Graham’s likely victory is not simply about voters here embracing his breaks from conservative orthodoxy. Graham has employed his own Tea-Party style rhetoric at times, invoking the specter of impeachment in the wake of President Obama’s release of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to help get Bowe Bergdahl released. He has raised more than $12 million for his reelection, a sum larger than all of his opponents combined.
Much of that money has went to television commercials that emphasize Graham’s conservative credentials on issues outside of immigration, such as his opposition to Obamacare and strong rhetoric condemning the administration for its handling of the aftermath of the attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.
In part because of his strong fundraising, popular GOP House members in South Carolina opted against running against him.
“It certainly helped that none of the congressmen ran, that’s for sure,” said Katon Dawson, a former state party chair here who is running a super PAC that is backing Graham.
Instead, a group of conservative but lightly-regarded challengers emerged, none strong enough to force the others to drop out and consolidate the opposition to Graham or get the backing of conservative outside groups like the Club for Growth to invest heavily in this race. Even if Graham is forced into a runoff, it’s unlikely Tea Party groups will pump in dollars here, since the much more winnable Mississippi runoff is also on June 22.
“The anti-Graham crowd is more intense than the pro-Graham crowd,” said Hogan Gidley, a Republican strategist here. “But the anti-Graham folks don’t have enough money or time.”
Graham’s advantage is such that he hasn’t had to spend his final days on the campaign trail announcing how conservative he is, as his fellow incumbent Republican senators Thad Cochran (Mississippi) and Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) did before their recent primaries. When a reporter asked him about his relationship with the Obama White House, Graham immediately started talking about going back to Washington and working with Democrats and the president to pass immigration reform legislation and a bill to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure.
“If the people send me back, they know exactly what they’re going to get,” Graham said in a short speech here. “They’re going to get more of the same.”
He added, “I am looking forward to having the people of South Carolina and the Republican Party speak tomorrow night, because here’s what they’re going to say: ‘Lindsey, keep being Lindsey.”