Towards the end of Saturday night’s first Senate debate between South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and his Democratic opponent, Jaime Harrison, the candidates were asked on what issues they would dissent with their parties. Graham, who’d been sticking for most of the hour to a controlled strategy of reciting warnings against what Democrats would do with power, seemed to loosen up.
“How long do you have?” Graham said. “So, Lindsey ‘Grahamnesty’ is my name on talk radio.” He spoke about how he’d worked for “over a decade to get a comprehensive immigration solution.” He’d worked on climate change, and when he voted for Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, he “got the crap beat out of me here at home by Republicans.
“When it’s talking about working with the other side, it’s not just talk with me,” he said. “And I’ve got the political scars to prove it.”
It was less self-flattery than reminiscence. Graham was waxing nostalgic about a once-prominent version of himself that hasn’t been seen in recent years. Following the 2016 election, Graham rebuilt himself from a Trump skeptic to a vocal and loyal ally of the president, and those moments of working across the aisle at significant personal risk stopped coming. He’s now a partisan warrior who broke an airtight vow against confirming a Supreme Court nominee in the last year of President Donald Trump’s first term.
Harrison had said in his opening statement that Graham would likely “scare you to vote for him.” The once freewheeling senator, indeed, had straitjacketed himself into that strategy, drawing from a grab bag of fears about the left at each opportunity.
In Graham’s own opening statement, he observed that “this is a big-choice election between me and Mr. Harrison: capitalism versus socialism, conservative judges versus liberal judges, law and order versus chaos.” This apocalyptic vision was everywhere. Responding to a question about whether teachers and students should be asked to return to an in-person, five-day school week without rapid COVID-19 testing available, Graham ended with a warning about how Democrats would pass “Medicare for All” and stack the Supreme Court. After fleshing out his position on enhanced unemployment benefits, Graham warned, again, that Democrats would pack the Supreme Court and eliminate the Electoral College. Graham said the worst thing that could happen to Myrtle Beach’s economy is a Democratic administration and Congress that would tax and regulate it.
When Harrison hammered Graham on his reversal over filling a Supreme Court seat in the final year of Trump’s term, Graham’s strategy required him to just take it.
“Senator, how good is your word when you made a promise to the American people—even more, you made a promise to the folks in South Carolina—that you wouldn’t be doing what you’re doing right now?” Harrison said. “And that’s the problem that I have, the greatest heresy that you could do as a public servant is to betray the trust of the people that you took an oath to serve.
“Just be a man about it,” he said, “and stand up and say, ‘You know what? I changed my mind. I’m going to do something else.’ But don’t go back and blame it on somebody else for a flip-flop that you’re making yourself.”
Graham noted that he had said in August that if an opening comes about, “we’ll see what the market will bear.” (In other words, he went back on his word in August, not September.) And he criticized Democrats for their treatment of Brett Kavanaugh, again. But he didn’t bite on the challenge to his character:
“All I can say is that Amy Barrett is highly qualified, I’m the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, the president has every right to do this, and if you’re counting on Mr. Harrison to ever vote for a conservative judge, you’re making a mistake of high proportion.”
Graham’s strategy of ignoring whatever he’s said in the past, hewing to the demands of the right, and warning of liberal doom may not always make him look good, but the political logic is clear. Consider a tale of two recent Quinnipiac polls of the Senate race. In a Sept. 16 poll, just before Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, Graham’s support among Republicans was a relatively saggy 89 percent. Two weeks later, after Ginsburg’s death and after Graham’s decision to press forward on her replacement, Quinnipiac found Graham was at 94 percent with Republicans.
Graham was tied with Harrison in both polls. What had shifted, though, was where he stood relative to Donald Trump: He was running only 1 percentage point behind the president in the more recent poll after lagging 6 points behind in the earlier one. If you expect Trump—despite some dicey polls here or there—to ultimately win, say, 54 percent of the vote in South Carolina, trying to match Trump’s number is a good strategy. That means maximizing Republican support by creating a 6–3 conservative Supreme Court and warning that the choice is either Lindsey Graham or full communism.
It’s not a foolproof approach, though. Between those two polls, Graham’s support among Republicans may have picked up, but his support among independents dropped by 6 points. Graham, who rarely bothered to filter whatever was on his mind in the past, is viewed as dishonest by 50 percent of the state, compared with the 40 percent who say he’s honest. Harrison used this as a cudgel during a question about term limits, noting that Graham had pledged, when he won his first congressional election in 1994, to serve only 12 years in Congress. “He said 12 years? It is now, uh”—Harrison took a mocking look at his watch—“13 years later. And Sen. Graham is still running.
“It is incumbent upon us to keep our promises,” Harrison said. “And if we change our minds, just admit, ‘I changed my mind.’ Don’t duck and dodge. And this is the thing that I promise the folks of South Carolina: I will never, never lie to you.”
“The bottom line here,” Graham said, “is, I’ve been leading the charge here for 250 conservative judges. When it comes to Lindsey Graham, the best is yet to come.”
“I think the question was about term limits,” Harrison responded.
Support Slate’s politics coverage
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Join Slate Plus to support our work. You’ll get unlimited articles and a suite of great benefits.