Lindsey Graham: The Bipartisan Dealmaker Finds Issues to Please GOP Base

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Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images

Senator Lindsey Graham speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 16, 2013

Congressional incumbents have two basic routes to re-election. One is to tack sharply toward the base, leaving only the narrowest of lanes for a primary challenger to outflank you. Most of the 11 Republican Senators up for re-election in 2014 have chosen this strategy. A few others, including Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and Lamar Alexander, take the second path, calculating that the best way to stay in Washington is to emphasize their clout inside the Capitol.

Then there is a little-traveled third path: the one blazed by South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham.

The garrulous two-term Republican Senator is a rare Washington species: a Southern conservative who whiplashes between base courting and bridge building. His love for cutting deals has weathered this bitter political season, and yet there are few better at using wedge issues to whip the GOP into a frenzy.

Graham was one of four Republican Senators who crafted a controversial proposal this year to rewrite U.S. immigration laws, and the only one who doesn’t hail from a border state with a large Hispanic population. During Barack Obama’s first term, Graham flirted with the White House over issues ranging from climate change to closing the prison facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In recent weeks, he was an outspoken opponent of the effort to defund the President’s health care law by linking it to must-pass legislation to fund the government.

But Graham is also diligent about the care and feeding of primary voters in the conservative Palmetto State. This week is a good example. Sometime in the next few days, Graham will introduce legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. “That’s what a rational, humane society should do,” Graham said on Fox News Sunday. “Protect a child that can feel pain from an abortion, unless there’s the life of the mother, rape or incest involved.” Legal scholars have raised questions about whether such a ban would violate the protections enshrined in Roe v. Wade. But the discussion is largely academic: while a companion bill passed the Republican-held House in June, the Graham-sponsored measure is unlikely to clear the Democratic-controlled Senate. Even if it did, the White House has pledged to issue a veto.

At the same time, Graham is renewing his vow to block all Obama Administration appointees until Congress has the opportunity to question witnesses of last year’s deadly terrorist attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya. For more than a year, Graham has been making political hay of the assault, stoking the fires of movement conservatives who see the security breach as a damning failure of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy. In the face of questions about the reliability of witness accounts, Graham insists that Obama’s team has been stonewalling Congress from exercising its oversight responsibilities. “I don’t think it’s over the top for the Congress to be able to challenge the narrative of any Administration when an ambassador is killed,” he told Fox on Sunday.

Graham is no stranger to using the senatorial prerogative to block nominees for political benefit: earlier this year, he threatened to stymie John Brennan’s installation at the CIA and Chuck Hagel’s appointment to run the Pentagon until he got answers on Benghazi. But the scope of the tactic is new. The blanket threat could delay, among other things, the ascension of Janet Yellen, Obama’s pick to run the Federal Reserve, and Jeh Johnson, whom the President nominated to run the Department of Homeland Security.

Some observers have questioned the motives behind these legislative machinations. Staking out a strong antiabortion stance is safe politics in South Carolina, and Benghazi is catnip to the movement conservatives who dominate the Palmetto State primary. It’s not entirely fair to dismiss them as pandering; Graham has been staunchly opposed to abortion since the start of his career, and he has blistered the White House over Benghazi since the night the attack left four Americans dead. But there is no question these are base-friendly crusades. And Graham could use the help.

Facing re-election in a year, Graham’s favorables have slipped underwater. A recent Winthrop University poll found that 37% of registered voters approved of Graham’s performance, while 49% disapproved. Those numbers are down sharply from February, when 72% of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents supported his performance. And they are downright dangerous in a race that features three Republicans challenging Graham from the right. Cutting deals with Democrats has clearly taken a toll.

And yet, Graham’s schizophrenic style still seems to be working well enough. For every move that might infuriate the base, he stakes out a Tea-infused stand; even as he was bashing the shutdown as stupid politics, he was enlisting in Senator David Vitter’s crusade to prevent congressional staffers from receiving health care subsidies. His press-savvy persona and penchant for tilting at the bright shiny object in every news cycle may have dented his popularity back home. But it has helped him amass a $7 million war chest that dwarfs that of his primary rivals, whom Graham is lapping in early polls.

There aren’t many Republicans in Washington capable of coasting to re-election in a scarlet state despite a habit of bucking the party base. But it seems likely that Graham will accomplish just that.

18 comments
jmac
jmac

"Then there is a little-traveled third path . . . "

It's called twisting yourself into a pretzel.  It's what the local Dallas newspaper does.   In the end, they got Cruz.   They didn't endorse him but they  helped elect him with their pretzeling.  

   Holding up nominations that presidents have had the right to for a long time isn't kosher.   Keeping judges off benches in certain locations (so democrats won't "pack the courts")  when the Republican president with a clear win in his second term not only got to pack that same court  and he got a clear vote to put the very conservative Alito on the Supreme Court.  The 'third way' is dirty politics.    Senator Cornyn on MIllett:  she will "tilt the court ideologically in a way that favors the big government agenda of the Obama administration."  That's what elections do. 

It's all Republicans have after gerry-mandering and  trying to keep Americans from voting - play dirty.  

jmac
jmac

The GOP's alternative to Obamacare:   Benghzai

sacredh
sacredh

Lindsey reminds me of the kid in school that everyone picked on and was always getting beaten up. The good person in you decided to make an effort and be his friend, but once you got to know him, you beat him up.

MrObvious
MrObvious

Mrs Vapors is not in any way shape and form a bi-partisan deal maker anymore then McCain is.

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Thanks, Alex, although it looks like Graham is really going the first route (not the "third way") as most of your article shows him tacking hard right. Alas for him, but as YOU would know from reading swampland comments regularly (you and your teammates ARE doing that daily, yes?), Tea Party groups insist on Walter White / Heisenberg level of purity in their politics. You're either with them all-in or you're not. Period. Any token gestures of compromise past or present from Graham is not likely to be seen favorably. 

So now the question is how much are SC TP groups willing to get rid of him? Do they want to just primary him and take their chances, or do they want to go the nuclear option and run a third party general election candidate, split the conservative vote, and even risk a D win (unlikely there, but possible)? Thanks for your thoughts.

reallife
reallife

The GOP's alternative to obamacare is the TRUTH

yogi
yogi

@jmac Benghazi was the free market at work.

sacredh
sacredh

@DreChase, there is a positive to the GOP's war on women. The democratic party gets to treat them. 

roknsteve
roknsteve

As long as they make you crumby sammiches and don't talk.  Rusty is Loser-in-Chief for life. 

jmac
jmac

@reallife @DreChase  "oh here we go again... the war on women"

Don't think the War on Women is real, realife?  Check out Virginia.  The two candidates (neither great) are tied with the male vote.  It's women that will win it for the Democrats.  

Either buy a clue or keep losing races.  It's pretty simple.   


jason024
jason024

@reallife @DreChase Clearly legislating women's vaginas is something your party loves why deny it? You should own it. Denial only delays the inevitable.

reallife
reallife

If you like your OBGYN you can keep it...

Is that the democrats message for women?

LOL