October 13, 2020
At the 2012 Republican National Convention, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, then a champion of bipartisan immigration reform, warned his party they had a problem. “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term,” he said, according to a report by The Boston Globe.
Now, he and his 2012 rhetoric are unrecognizable.
Indeed, a recent 81-second attack ad by the LindseyMustGo group shows the senator as he used to be—blasting Trump as a “jackass,” “kook,” “crazy” and “unfit for office” before the 2016 election—followed by clips of him today, heaping praise on the president, even calling for him to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Over the past few years, the third-term senator has jettisoned the conciliatory political persona he used to display and hitched his wagon to President Donald Trump’s fiery star, which seemed like an obvious recipe for 2020 success in a red state like South Carolina.
But he is now embroiled in the battle of his career against Jaime Harrison, a former state party chair trying to be the first Black Democrat elected to the Senate from the Deep South. Harrison raised a staggering $57 million over the last three months, and the Cook Political Report rates the race a “toss-up” — a startling turn of events for South Carolina, which hasn’t elected a Democratic senator or governor in more than 20 years.
According to the Globe, “The race has been turbocharged by Graham’s outsize role as a defender of the president and a key player in his effort to reshape the Supreme Court. As the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he will preside over the confirmation hearing of Judge Amy Coney Barrett beginning Monday — proceeding despite a clarion 2018 promise not to fill a Supreme Court vacancy so close to this election.”
Graham has called the confirmation process the “Super Bowl” of politics, and he is betting it will fire up South Carolina conservatives, who have long distrusted him, even as it riles up the Democrats determined to highlight his hypocrisy as another reason to send him packing.
“They hate me. This is not about Mr. Harrison. This is about liberals hating my guts,” a pugilistic Graham declared during a debate with Harrison on October 3.
But it’s more than that, Dan Carter, an emeritus professor at the University of South Carolina told the Globe. “If Graham’s in any jeopardy at all,” he said, “it’s because of Trump and the fact that he had to go through all these contortions to protect himself on the right in the new Trump party.”
Graham, a former military lawyer, flipped his congressional district here in the upstate region of South Carolina in 1994 after a century of Democratic control, campaigning for term limits and against gays in the military. In 2003, he went on to the Senate, where he had a moderate countenanc —an impression fueled by his close friendship with Arizona Republican John McCain; and by his eagerness to join such bipartisan groups as the Gang of Eight. which worked on immigration reform during the Obama presidency. He also crafted climate legislation with Democrats.
He treated the Tea Party movement with undisguised disdain and survived primary challenges from the right in 2014 in part because so many conservatives jumped in to split the field, but he didn’t see the other asteroid that was coming to reshape his party. Graham’s doomed 2016 presidential bid — in which he called then-candidate Trump a “kook” who was “unfit for office” — flamed out before Iowa.
By 2018, he had moved toward Trump, becoming a golfing buddy of the president and an angry defender of his Supreme Court pick that year, Brett Kavanaugh, during a messy confirmation process that turned on accusations of sexual assault. In a party that had changed around him, Graham’s days of presenting himself as a moderate were long gone.
“As it relates to crossing the aisle or building consensus, I think he is fundamentally a builder and not a destroyer,” said Karen Floyd, the former chairwoman of the state’s Republican Party. “When the timing permits, he’ll build more.”
Democrats have gleefully seized on the shift as evidence Graham can’t be trusted. “Lindsey Graham is a flip-flopper. Flipping flippity flippity flop,” said Trav Robertson, the chair of the South Carolina Democrats. “And that’s why Lindsey Graham’s gonna lose.”
Research contact: @BostonGlobe