During an interview I conducted back in April with Rep. Trey Gowdy for a profile that would appear in this very magazine, I asked the amiable South Carolinian if he had thought about challenging Sen. Lindsey Graham in his Senate primary this year. Gowdy laughed at me.
“Yes, I thought about challenging Lindsey Graham,” he told me jokingly, “because he out-negotiated me on the tee box the last time he and I played golf. And I would love to challenge him again at the course of his choosing!”
“Um, no,” he added simply. Gowdy, a popular and well-liked conservative in the House of Representatives, would have been as formidable a challenger as they come. He’s spent his life in the Palmetto State, working in the legal system to put criminals behind bars. He’s a legal crusader and a prosecutor, and even Speaker John Boehner, for better or worse, recognized his star power by appointing him chairman of the special committee to investigate Benghazi.
But even Gowdy won’t touch Lindsey Graham. Prescient move: Graham glided past six challengers in last night’s primary, winning 56 percent of the vote — easily more than the half he needed to avoid a runoff. The worst-kept secret in South Carolina politics is that conservative activists and Tea Partiers don’t much like Graham. The second worst-kept secret is that Graham is going to steamroll the competition anyway.
In Gowdy’s case, it’s true that he considers Graham a friend, and he’s seen what can happen to a friendship when politics get in the way. Gowdy considered his predecessor, former Rep. Bob Inglis, a friend until he decided he could do a better job in Washington. He and Inglis don’t speak much these days.
“I was incredibly naive to think you could still be friends and run for the same political office,” Gowdy told me. “It might be possible that that could happen, but it’s rare.”
But it’s not just friendship that stood in Gowdy’s way. Senator Graham is different; the politics of being friends with Graham are different. As patriarch of the South Carolina delegation in Washington, D.C., Graham isn’t someone a two-term Congressman can afford to not be on speaking terms with.
What’s more, many of the barbs thrown at incumbents during primary season simply don’t stick with Graham. He can’t be convincingly painted as an out-of-touch Washington elite. Instead of dismissing his primary challengers out of hand, he focused on organizing an impressive ground game. He didn’t shy away from a debate — even though, with an $8 million war chest, it would have been easy to stick to running an air war from afar.
But it’s still not for lack of trying that conservative grassroots in South Carolina will only begrudgingly send Graham back to the Senate for a third term. Indeed, the bench of conservative challengers was long enough, if seriously lacking in depth. There was a state senator, an upstate businessman, a low-country businesswoman, a pastor, and two attorneys. Not one of them made a dent.
In a Clemson University poll released June 4, for example, none of Graham’s challengers registered above nine percent. Sen. Graham came in at 49 percent. Therein lies the rub: despite the nascent grumblings of a deeply-red state, Graham continually comes out on top.
It’s a familiar scene. In 2008, Graham stomped his single primary challenger, 66 to 33 percent. In the general election, he ran against a Ron Paul-supporting, conservative Democrat Bob Conley whose beef with the GOP centered around ending both illegal immigration and the war in Iraq; two issues that ironically enough, still cause the most strife between Graham and Palmetto State conservatives. Still, Lindsey “Grahamnesty” won 57 to 42 percent.
Fortunately for Graham, he plays the South Carolina political game better than anyone. Unfortunately for his detractors, conservatives in the state have yet to figure out the formula for beating Graham at his own game. Those who tried, failed. Those who might have had a shot, didn’t want to try. And luckily for Graham, Gov. Nikki Haley eliminated the Tim Scott threat by appointing Scott to the Senate last year.
In 2010 and in 2012, incumbents fell faster than a summer rain shower on I-85. Graham made his own primary race this year so un-noteworthy it hardly attracted glances from national media.
So Graham can rest assured knowing that while many South Carolinians may think he’s too soft on immigration, too hawkish on foreign policy, too close to the Democrats, too moderate — remember that unforgivable vote in favor of the bailouts? — he’ll be spending another six years in Washington. That gives Gowdy plenty of time to practice his swing.