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Americans might know Sen. Lindsey Graham from television appearances alongside his cohort, Arizona Sen. John McCain, pushing an aggressive foreign policy. But now that he has announced his exploration for president, Republicans in his home state of South Carolina have let out a collective sigh, shaking their heads in confusion.
Graham coasted to re-election in November in what was expected to be a difficult feat by winning his primary with 59 percent of the vote, but Palmetto State Republicans aren’t jumping at the idea of President Graham, a notion he confirmed he was exploring Sunday on "Meet the Press."
“He serves the state of South Carolina well and we need him in the US Senate,” said long-time South Carolina Republican strategist Jim Dyke.
That was the reception given by Republicans ranging from the conservative grassroots to the Republican establishment. Graham has become known as a foreign policy hawk, often aligned with Arizona Sen. John McCain, who pushes an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy.
Graham’s foreign policy appeals to many conservatives in South Carolina, which has deep military roots and is home to the Citadel. But state Senator Katrina Shealy said she doesn’t think his foreign policy expertise is enough.
“If he could be the president of national defense - I mean he’d be good at that. I just don’t think he’s the president for everything. And we need a president for everything,” Shealy added.
While Graham is appreciated in many corners of the state, one faction of the Republican Party – the tea party – doesn’t even want to see Graham in the Senate. They worked unsuccessfully to defeat him in his primary. Graham said beating them was “fun.”
“These people loathe him, rightfully so,” said Will Folks, influential editor of a local conservative website FITSNews, referring to the gathering of the state’s tea party group, which tends to be more skeptical of an aggressive foreign policy. “This guy is one of the most dangerous people in the world.”
Graham’s support for comprehensive immigration reform is another issue that stokes some conservative’s ire.
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If Graham can’t garner support in his own state, which is also an influential early primary state, his path to the nomination is quite difficult. Richard Nixon is the last person to lose his home state in the primary but win presidential nomination. He lost to fellow Californian Ronald Reagan.
Regardless, Graham is forming an exploratory committee. He hopes to raise $500,000 by the end of April, a Republican who has spoken to Graham about his plans. That amount, however, is a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated $80 million the primary winner is expected have to raise. But in a potentially crowded Republican field, breaking through to donors is going to be a challenge.
Even a consultant who worked on Graham's 2014 Senate campaign said Graham winning the GOP primary is "a long shot."
But Graham’s presidential aspirations might have little to do with being president and more about influencing the field. With candidates like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul who has vastly different views than Graham’s hawkish national security stances as well as a litany of governors who could run who have little foreign policy experience, Graham could see an opportunity to move the Republican field closer to his positions.
“Senator Graham is an important voice on foreign policy,” Matthew Moore, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party said. “I believe Senator Graham wants to make sure that our party has an important discussion on foreign policy and America’s role in the 21st century.”