Politics

Is Lindsey Graham Trumpy Enough for His Voters?

A former critic of the president scrambles to save his Senate seat against Jaime Harrison.

Lindsey Graham looks at something.
Sen. Lindsey Graham listens to colleagues during a committee hearing on Thursday in D.C. Win McNamee/Getty Images

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham committed to a new political course in September 2018, when he screamed at his Democratic colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee about their treatment of Brett Kavanaugh. He was no longer the politician whom Rush Limbaugh had once dubbed “Grahamnesty” for his commitment to bipartisan immigration reform, the senator whose conservative credentials the Republican base had called into question for his willingness to work with Democrats. He was reinventing himself as a base politician in a red state and a loyal ally, defender, and golfing buddy of President Donald Trump, whom he’d called a “race-baiting, xenophobic bigot” during the 2016 election cycle.

In doing so, he bought himself a smooth ride through primary season, followed by the bumpiest general election of his career. The last three public polls of his reelection contest against Democrat Jaime Harrison—a former top aide to South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, and lobbyist—show Graham either tied or leading by a single percentage point. It’s the most competitive South Carolina Senate race in decades, and it’s reflected in the mammoth fundraising figures the race is generating. Harrison raised $10.6 million in August alone, more than Graham raised in April, May, and June combined. As Matt Moore, a Republican consultant and former chair of the state Republican Party, told me, $100 million could end up being spent in the race—four times the previous record. Graham has recently taken to appearing on Fox News multiple times a day pleading for money just to keep up.

Both the race and the fundraising have been accelerated into hyperintensity by the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the decisions Graham, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has made since then. Despite vowing in the past, with airtight language and on multiple occasions, that he would not move to fill a Supreme Court vacancy in the last year of Trump’s first term, he is now moving to fill a Supreme Court vacancy in the last year—the last months—of Trump’s first term. His shift in thinking has regularly been described as “hypocrisy.” As the Dispatch’s Jonah Goldberg has written, the maneuver “is better understood as simple and outright deceit.”

But simple and outright deceit is no-brainer political move to make when you have the problem Graham has. If you look under the hood at South Carolina Senate race polls, there’s a recurring issue for Graham: He’s not getting enough Republican support. A CBS NewsYouGov survey released this past weekend, which had Graham leading Harrison 45–44 percent, showed Harrison earning 94 percent of Democrats and Graham only earning 82 percent of Republicans. In a Quinnipiac poll earlier this month in which the race was tied, Harrison earned 98 percent of Democrats while Graham earned 89 percent of Republicans. As Morning Consult wrote last week, Graham is “one of the worst-performing GOP incumbents up for re-election this cycle among voters from his own party,” consistently trailing Trump’s support among Republican voters in the state.

In other words, Lindsey Graham may have been vigorously marketing himself as a base politician—but the base isn’t entirely sold.

“Donald Trump’s going to carry this state by 7 or 8 points, and Lindsey’s margin is going to be less than that,” Robert Oldendick, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina, told me. There’s a potentially crucial bloc of Republicans who “were just dissatisfied with Graham because of some of the things he said about Trump when they were competing in 2016.”

Matt Moore described the issue as less about Graham’s conservative shortcomings and more about the Trump Republican coalition being about Trump and no one else.

“President Trump has created a unique coalition that has become the Republican Party,” Moore said. “Some of those voters don’t support anyone other than President Trump. The challenge is making the connection between President Trump and the need for a Republican Senate.” The same suboptimal levels of support among Republicans are also a problem for incumbents like Thom Tillis in North Carolina and Martha McSally in Arizona.

And that’s why all three of them wasted little time in declaring they would support the push to fill Ginsburg’s seat before the election. Though Graham, by going back on his word, will only harden the existing opposition to him and ensure that Harrison’s campaign will never lack for money, he’ll have a visible role in ushering through Trump’s nominee to create a 6–3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court. It’s a trade he didn’t have to spend much time thinking over.

“The fact that he’s now supporting Trump, that he’s getting this nomination through, I think kind of alleviates” some of those lingering concerns that Graham isn’t entirely with Trump, Oldendick said. “I would not be surprised if, toward the end of this process, we don’t see a sound bite from the president saying, ‘I appreciate Chairman Graham getting this nomination through.’ That kind of shoutout from President Trump in this state is worth a lot of money in campaign contributions.”

Graham will need all of the earned media he can get. According to Politico, Harrison currently has booked $14 million worth of television ads ahead of Election Day, compared with Graham’s $2 million. A super PAC supporting Graham has chipped in another $2.5 million—but a leading Democratic super PAC, Senate Majority PAC, announced Monday its own ad buy in the state for $6.5 million. Graham, in other words, is being outspent about 4-to-1.

The ad that Senate Majority PAC is running isn’t what you’d expect amid the swirl of Supreme Court news. It has both nothing and everything to do with it.

It begins with a clip of Trump talking about how he’s going to bring down prescription drug costs, then cuts to a narrator who says that Graham, beholden to special interests like Big Pharma, “stands in the way.”

The Harrison campaign, in order to win, needs extraordinary turnout from Black voters and strong support from suburban women. But it also needs to keep those Trump voters who aren’t sold on Graham from sticking to Graham as he marshals Trump’s Supreme Court nominee through the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Senate Majority PAC ad can be viewed straightforwardly as a persuasion message to swing voters. It also, though, may be reminding Trump voters that they can just leave the Senate race blank when they’re filling out their ballots.