Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) addressed the Republican Jewish Coalition last week to give a foreign-policy briefing that doubles as the rationale for his prospective presidential campaign.
“The president isn’t working for anything in the Middle East except for regime change in Israel,” Graham said at the meeting, according to one attendee.
Yet when someone else asked about his presidential prospects, Graham told the audience — populated by some of the wealthiest Republican donors in the country — that he’s not sure he can raise the money necessary to mount a successful bid.
The event thus showcased Graham’s greatest strength (foreign-policy expertise in a world that seems to grow more dangerous by the day) and one of the weaknesses (lack of money) that have political watchers deriding his flirtation with a presidential candidacy. Larry Sabato, for instance, ranks Graham in the fifth tier of 2016 candidates, right next to George Pataki, the forgotten former governor of New York. Even some Republican operatives in his home state suggest that he views a presidential bid as a “check-off box,” a legacy-building exercise in keeping with a bipartisan tradition of South Carolina senators making quixotic runs for the White House.
But the impulse to dismiss Graham as a sideshow disregards the fact that, unlike Pataki, he is an incumbent senator in a crucial early-primary state. Even if he is never a top contender for the nomination, he could be an important factor in the election. He is in a statistical tie for first with Walker in South Carolina, according to a recent poll of the state.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if I wasn’t strong in South Carolina,” he tells NRO.
In a 2016 field crowded with at least half a dozen credible candidates, South Carolina operatives say, Graham’s worst-case scenario could be getting to play kingmaker for the eventual Republican nominee. “If we have three candidates, hell no; if we have seven, absolutely,” says one in-state consultant. A stronger showing could put him in line to replace John Kerry at the State Department if Republicans retake the White House. And maybe, just maybe, he could walk Arizona senator John McCain’s 2008 path through New Hampshire and South Carolina all the way to the nomination.
The biggest problem with that dream scenario: Graham is a man without a ready-made national base. He doesn’t command the allegiance of the establishment donor class, and he doesn’t have credibility with the Republican grassroots. Several county GOP groups in South Carolina voted to censure him last year after he helped to write an immigration bill that conservative activists hated. And to win reelection in 2014, he had to “wipe out the Tea Party,” as longtime friend Katon Dawson, the former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman, puts it. Grassroots conservatives won’t give Graham the kind of small-dollar donations that long-shot candidates need to win.
That’s where groups such as the RJC, backed by casino magnate and GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, could come in handy for Graham. Adelson donated to Graham’s Senate campaign last cycle, drawn to both Graham’s support for Israel and his opposition to Internet gambling.
“Lindsey Graham has a financial network around the entire United States,” says Dawson, who ran Graham’s super PAC during the 2014 campaign. That said, it is far from certain that supporters of his Senate campaigns will back him in a presidential field; Dawson himself committed to Rick Perry’s team before Graham had made his ambitions public. In the era of super PACs, though, there is nothing to stop GOP donors from backing multiple candidates, especially if they want to bolster a relationship with a Republican who is likely to be in the Senate for years to come.
“It’s a lot easier to raise $10,000 than $2,500,” as one GOP operative puts it.
And Graham doesn’t need a lot of money to emerge as an unexpected force in the campaign. In 2008, McCain bled cash and campaign staff when he defied party orthodoxy on immigration and defended George W. Bush’s Iraq War surge. He had enough money to buy TV time in New Hampshire, though, and a comeback win there turned the race around.
“I think, from the response I’ve gotten initially, that I’ll be able to raise the money to put organizations together in the early states to be competitive,” Graham says. “I’m not yet there — won’t really know until the end of May.” The early-state elections would give him enough time to find out if he can make a splash during the debates, which his camp regards as his best chance to distance himself from the pack of also-rans.
“In debates, he’ll shred ’em,” McCain told reporters in January. “Have you see ever seen Senator Graham in a debate, on the floor of the Senate? He will do wonderful. I don’t want to raise expectations, but I’m confident.”
On stage, Graham will pick a fight with President Obama and with Republicans whom he regards as having a “fortress America” strategy for national defense.
“It’s not a foil to any particular opponent,” Graham says when asked if he has Rand Paul in mind. “It is a rejection of an idea that manifests itself in libertarianism sometimes and sometimes in a hybrid between libertarianism and a traditional conservative approach. There are many people in my party who are not libertarians who are perfectly okay with sequestration.”
Graham calls the GOP acquiescence to sequestration one of the saddest moments of his career, as it led to defense spending cuts that reduced the U.S. Army to its smallest size since before World War II. To reverse those defense cuts, he is willing to consider targeted tax increases — eliminating certain deductions, not raising rates. “I’d like to be a president who could get people in a room and say ‘we’re not leaving here until we find a way to save Social Security and Medicare; everybody’s going to have to give some,’” he says, endorsing a combination of tax increases and spending cuts such as the plan envisioned by the Simpson-Bowles Commission.
Such unorthodox domestic-policy views will make it harder for Graham to break out of the pack of lower-tier presidential candidates. His hawkish advocacy of sending up to 10,000 troops back to Iraq to fight the Islamic State also might not appeal to a “war-weary” nation.
“I’m trying to find an alternative to Obama that makes sense to the Republican party and the country as a whole, and it should be a fairly easy lift,” he says. “I think most Americans want to keep the war away from our shores and understand you’re going to need some troops over there to keep the fight from coming here. . . . There are people who I respect running right now who are just afraid to death to say we need boots on the ground to make sure we’re successful in Iraq and Syria.”
His optimism about the political chances of a national-security campaign has a precedent in recent presidential politics. McCain’s dogged defense of the 2007 Iraq War surge damaged him during the 2008 primary season, until the surge succeeded and voters came back to him. Graham’s position is potentially better than McCain’s, because he gets to attack an unpopular outgoing president rather than defend one.
“[Obama’s] political team is on the ground with an organization that’s not for any particular candidate, but against Bibi,” Graham says when asked why he thinks Obama has had a tough relationship with Israel and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. “I think he sees Bibi as a bigger threat to world order, and George Bush as a bigger threat to world order, than the ayatollahs of Iran.” (His choice to defend Bush out of the blue may reflect his team’s belief that George W. is the most popular Republican in South Carolina. If Graham drops out, Jeb Bush is the most likely beneficiary.)
Graham’s pugnacious denunciations of Obama, including a consistent focus on the 2012 Benghazi terror attacks and the Obama administration’s antagonistic relationship with Israel, might curry some favor with the conservative activists who dislike his domestic record.
“President Obama is incompetent, stubborn, and arrogant,” he says. “I’ve tried to work with the guy, but he has created an environment where our homeland is going to get struck hard.”
If his most dire predictions come true, some voters might look to him as the candidate they trust on national security. Short of that, the presidential-debate stage might give him a lot of influence over the party’s foreign-policy direction.
“If the Republicans win the White House, Lindsey Graham will have his choice of being Secretary of Defense or Secretary of State, if he does it right,” Dawson says.
Graham denies that he has any interest in moving to the Pentagon or Foggy Bottom. “There’s no better job than being a United States senator, except maybe being commander-in-chief,” he says. “I’d like to be commander-in-chief; I’d like to be a commander-in-chief worthy of the sacrifice that the 1 percent have given for so long,” he says (referring to the share of Americans who serve in the military).
If Graham can’t retrace McCain’s steps, he could ultimately follow Fred Thompson’s trail instead. Thompson skipped New Hampshire in 2008 and campaigned hard in South Carolina, long after it was clear that he wouldn’t win the nomination. Thompson split the conservative vote with Mike Huckabee and created an opening for McCain to win South Carolina and eventually take the nomination.
“The votes that he took essentially were votes that I would have most likely had,” Huckabee said after Thompson boxed him out in South Carolina.
Graham’s candidacy could have more than one Republican offering the same lament, even if no one ever plays “Hail to the Chief” when he walks into a room.
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.