The Slatest

Can Lindsey Graham Rally the Establishment Around Jeb Bush?

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham announces his endorsement of Jeb Bush for president on Jan. 15, 2016, in North Charleston, South Carolina.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Feel the Jeb-mentum! On Friday, Lindsey Graham officially endorsed Jeb Bush for president, giving the former front-runner’s flailing campaign a rare shot of good news with only weeks to go until the Republican nominating contest officially kicks off. “I have concluded without any hesitation, without any doubt, that Jeb Bush is ready on day one to be a commander-in-chief worthy of the sacrifices of the 1 percent who have been fighting this war,” said Graham.

This, to put it mildly, is not a game-changer. Graham was little more than an afterthought in the Republican race when he was actually in the Republican race, and it’s hard to imagine he can convince conservative voters to rally behind Bush, a candidate who many of them loathe, when he couldn’t convince them to rally around himself. Still, it’s not nothing. Graham remains relatively popular in his home state of South Carolina, which is third on the GOP primary calendar, and well-connected in Washington, D.C, where his party’s elite are desperate-and-getting-more-so to rally the establishment around a single candidate in the hopes of derailing Donald Trump and Ted Cruz before it’s too late.

Graham’s endorsement also doesn’t have to come with a double-digit polling bump to matter in New Hampshire, where Bush and his fellow party-approved rivals—Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and John Kasich—are currently locked in a dogfight for second place, and where a point or two in the final standings could be the difference in the establishment contest within the larger one. Any Graham-caused momentum, meanwhile, would be magnified if he were to convince his Senate BFF and fellow uber-hawk John McCain to join him on the Bush train. In Jeb’s dream of dreams, Graham’s endorsements begets McCain’s, which begets Mitt Romney’s, which is then combined with Bob Dole’s, which he already has, and those of his brother and father, who are currently waiting in the wings. And just like that Jeb would have the backing of each and every former GOP presidential nominee who is still alive—a collection that would finally give his absurdly well-funded super PAC something to crow about. 

Will that happen? I wouldn’t bet on it—and even if it were to, it might not be enough given establishment has become a dirty word for many Republican voters who are currently more enthralled by anger and political outsiders than they are by experience and political connections. Still, Bush—more than any other candidate in the race—is synonymous with the GOP establishment, so it’s better to embrace it than to run from it. And given how poorly Jeb has fared to date on the campaign trail and debate stage, his best chance to win over establishment-minded voters might just be to have men whom they’ve voted for in the past make his case for him.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the GOP primary.