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.