WASHINGTON — Four months ago, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham easily won his Republican Party primary, and one of the great political transformations of modern times seemed to work out perfectly. Today, he’s fighting for his career.
No one has personified the change of the GOP quite like Graham has. He was once a passionate Trump critic, whose weakness was from the right; he was seen as a little too willing to work with Democrats. For a time, his 17-year seat was viewed as vulnerable to a far-right tea party–like primary challenger.
Then Donald Trump became president, and Lindsey Graham would never be the same.
Graham traded in his image as a pragmatic dealmaker to become a fiery and loyal MAGA soldier. It worked. While anti-Trump Republicans were drummed out of Congress through primaries or retirements, Graham excelled. He was routinely seen golfing with Trump. He helped deliver Trump nominee Brett Kavanaugh a seat on the Supreme Court despite fierce opposition. He was elevated to the powerful role of Senate Judiciary Committee chair. In June, he won his primary without any serious challenge.
But now Graham is facing the possibility that it all comes crashing down. He is battling the same phenomenon that’s hurting many Republicans this election year: After four years of embracing Trump, the party may be being dragged down by him. Republicans have long accepted they won’t win back the House. Of the 23 incumbent GOP senators up for reelection in 2020, as many as 12 are in danger of losing. Contrary to a Trump boost, many of them, like Graham, are polling lower than Trump. That wasn’t supposed to matter in solidly red South Carolina, where Republicans have held Graham’s seat for over 50 years.
“I’ve long believed that the Republican Party embracing Trump hurts the Republican Party, but it doesn’t hurt Donald Trump,” said Terry Sullivan, a Republican political consultant with Firehouse Strategies who ran Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Graham’s opponent, Jaime Harrison, raised $57 million between July and September, more than any Senate candidate, running anywhere, in history. Polls have shown Harrison within striking distance, making it one of the state’s first close Senate races since 2004.
Over two weeks in September, Graham went on Fox News at least five times to plead with viewers to donate to his campaign. It was surreal stuff. “I’m being killed financially. This money is because they hate my guts,” he said during an appearance on Fox & Friends. His appeals have become so frequent that a recent one was cut off.
South Carolina will almost certainly vote for Trump as president, but that doesn’t seem to matter as much in 2020 as it did in 2016. Four years ago, Republican Senate candidates in key states like Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Iowa all outperformed Trump. But this year, the inverse is happening — Senate Republicans across the country are consistently polling below the president.
Could Graham actually lose what has long been a safely red seat? Many strategists are skeptical. Sullivan ran Republican Jim DeMint’s 2004 campaign for Senate in South Carolina, which was the state’s last competitive race. Polls shortly before the election showed him tied with Democratic challenger Inez Tenenbaum. He ended up winning by nearly 10 points.
“What will happen is the Republican voters will be annoyed with who the candidate is, but then they will end up drifting back,” said Sullivan. “Republican numbers get depressed, but those people don’t actually end up voting for Democrats. They turn up and return home.”
Both Democrats and Republicans agree that the circumstances for Graham to lose would have to involve a wild card: a third-party candidate.
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Unluckily for Graham, there just happens to be a far-right candidate on the ballot, running a lavishly funded campaign run by Democrats. Bill Bledsoe, the Constitution Party candidate, isn’t campaigning, and he has denounced the campaign supporting him. But his name is on the ballot. In South Carolina, Bledsoe is being touted in TV ads and mailers funded by Democratic PACs and anti-Trump groups like the Lincoln Project to draw votes away from Graham. This South Carolina Democratic Party webpage supposedly attacking the candidate for being “100% pro-Trump, pro-gun, anti-abortion” could easily be mistaken for Bledsoe’s own campaign website.
Amanda Loveday, former executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party, estimates that as much as $15 million is being spent to promote Bledsoe’s unwitting candidacy. “It’s a trick out of the Republican playbook, so I’m proud of Democrats for finally doing it,” she said.
Loveday said that this election is the “perfect storm” of circumstances that could cause Graham to lose. She projects that if Bledsoe can pull greater than 3% of the vote — he pulled about 2% when he ran for Senate in 2016 — then Harrison has a chance. Loveday said Harrison would also need to get 30% of white voters, and for Black voters to make up at least 30% of the overall total. That could allow for Harrison to squeak out a plurality win despite not getting a majority of votes, she said.
Loveday, who worked with Harrison at the state party, said that many Democrats have voted for Graham in the past, but his embrace of Trump means that won’t happen this time. And while she doesn’t expect Republicans to vote for Harrison, she said many die-hard Trump fans see Graham’s support for the president as phony and inauthentic; she believes they won’t show up for him.
“It’s the opposite of what people loved about Lindsey. That’s the problem. It’s the epitome of what Lindsey was not for so many years,” she said. “He really made his own bed with this one.”
During the 2016 Republican primaries, Graham described then-candidate Trump as “dangerous,” “absurd,” “stupid,” and a “kook.” While campaigning in South Carolina in 2015, Trump once called him an “idiot” and then proceeded to give out Graham’s cellphone number. The two made peace before the election; since then, Graham has been a rock-solid ally to the point of tweeting about how badly Trump beats him at golf.
By all accounts, Harrison has run an impressive campaign. His ads don’t so much mention Trump as they attack Graham for his clear conversion over the past four years, portraying him as someone who has lost his way and is not the politician he used to be. A Harrison campaign spokesman told BuzzFeed News they see the race as a toss-up.
Graham’s campaign politely declined an interview request, citing a time crunch, and did not respond to emailed questions.
Republican strategists have also flagged Graham’s conversion to Trump as a possible weakness because it is seen as insincere and opportunistic by many of the president’s supporters. Joel Sawyer, former executive director for the South Carolina Republican Party, called Harrison’s campaign “may be the best campaign [he’s] ever seen run in South Carolina, quite honestly.” But he still doubts that it’s enough.
Sawyer said a Harrison victory could only result from a very unlikely combination of him outperforming Obama, a large number of Trump-voting Republicans opting not to vote in the Senate race, and Bledsoe pulling significant support as a third-party candidate — at least 5%. “I think Jaime has a path, but it’s extremely narrow, and it would require several things to happen that have never happened before,” he said.
If Graham does hold on, he could find himself returning to a Congress with far fewer Republicans. States like Georgia and North Carolina, which were once solidly red, are rapidly turning purple.
If there is a mirror version of Lindsey Graham, it is arguably former South Carolina representative Mark Sanford. While Graham embraced Trump, Sanford continued to criticize him. While Graham became the president’s trusted adviser and golf buddy, Sanford was the target of Trump’s angry tweets. And while Graham’s career has reached new heights over the past four years, highlighted by leading the charge as chair of the Judiciary Committee on two successful Supreme Court nominations, Sanford’s has ended.
Trump endorsed Sanford’s 2018 MAGA-branded primary challenger, Katie Arrington. Despite his profile as a longtime member of Congress and former governor, Sanford lost his primary. (Arrington would go on to lose the general election to Joe Cunningham, the first Democrat to win South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District in 40 years.)
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Sanford declined to talk publicly about Graham’s decisions, other than to say he was clairvoyant when, in 2016, Graham predicted that selecting Trump as their presidential candidate would lead to electoral destruction.
“Everybody’s got to do their calculus on their own, based on their beliefs and value system,” Sanford said.
Sanford said he can’t see Trump or Graham losing in South Carolina. “All the money in the world doesn’t change demographics,” he said. However, he does think his party’s embrace of Trump will not only be “disastrous” this election, but it risks alienating an entire generation of young people.
Trump’s intraparty critics are almost all out of Congress now. People like former representative Charlie Dent and former senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake all retired. Rep. Justin Amash left the party and sits as a Libertarian. Sanford said that after Trump leaves office, he doesn’t know what it will mean to be a Republican anymore, and the people who remain in Congress if the president loses will have a period in the wilderness where they’ll have to do some soul-searching.
“I think we’ve been marching towards our own political extinction, though it has entailed a lot of self-preservation for individual candidacies in the process,” Sanford said. He noted that it hasn’t worked out well for Republicans who have refused to take Lindsey Graham’s path and enthusiastically get behind Trump. “But,” he added, “I sleep very comfortably at night.” ●