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Giving Graham Grief

Conservatives line up for Lindsey's Senate seat.

By From the May 2014 issue

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It’s been a lousy couple years for the Establishment. A subtle (but seismic) shift has taken place. Many Republicans in leadership are now scrambling for grassroots credibility. Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn, and others who have become desperate are shadowing  their libertarian junior colleagues. 

Then there’s Lindsey Graham. Of all the incumbents up for reelection this cycle, only he remains untroubled, unrepentant, and seemingly unassailable.

Just to review the record: The senior senator from South Carolina has declared that, “We need to raise taxes to get our nation out of debt.” According to Graham, TARP was “necessary because the whole economy was gonna collapse, and Bernanke, Paulson, and everybody that I know and quite frankly trust, after Lehman Brothers went down that if we had not involved ourselves, quickly, you’d have had a financial meltdown.” 

The gentleman thinks that global warming “threatens our economy and national security,” which is precisely why he called for “aggressive reductions in our emission of the carbon gases that cause climate change.”

But it is in the area of civil liberties that Graham is most out of step with his younger colleagues. When Rand Paul asked last year whether the president of the United States has the authority to kill American citizens on American soil without due process, Attorney General Eric Holder fudged. Paul filibustered. Graham was insulted—not by the AG’s lawyered-up non-response, but by Paul’s initial query. As he said, “I find the question offensive. As much as I disagree with President Obama, as much as I support past presidents, I do not believe that question deserves an answer.” Small wonder. Graham’s the same guy who once told a national television audience that “Free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war.” 

When the IRS was exposed for bullying ordinary Americans, Graham saw “no evidence” that the White House was involved. When it was revealed that the NSA spies on everyone—whether you’re an American, an Egyptian, or the chancellor of Germany—Graham casually remarked that he was glad his phone is being tracked:

I’m a Verizon customer. I don’t mind Verizon turning over records to the government if the government is going to make sure that they try to match up a known terrorist phone with somebody in the United States. I don’t think you’re talking to the terrorists. I know you’re not. I know I’m not. So we don’t have anything to worry about.

Except that Graham himself does seem to worry—about everything.He’s absolutely petrified before threats big and small, and his concerns don’t end at the homefront.  “The world is literally about to blow up,” he warned shortly after the president’s most recent State of the Union address. (This forecast had not proved accurate as of press time.) He rarely forgoes the opportunity to rattle sabers at Iran and Syria.

Sure, Graham reserves some aversion to federal overreach. He’s against Obamacare. On other matters? He’s happy to side with the supremacy of state. As he announced in 2010:

Everything I’m doing now in terms of talking about climate, talking about immigration, talking about Gitmo is completely opposite of where the Tea Party movement’s at.…The problem with the Tea Party, I think it’s just unsustainable because they can never come up with a coherent vision for governing the country. It will die out.

If another Republican politician were to use that kind of language, he might as well start looking for a job in the private sector—and, true to form, eager Tea Party activists looking for RINO skins have long fantasized about knocking off the South Carolinian. But polls show Graham, who’s up for re-election this year, sitting pretty. “I know what to do or say to keep this job for 100 years,” he told the Weekly Standard in February. That might be the case, but why?

For one thing, those potential challengers with the clout and influence to mount a serious attack have bowed out. Congressmen Mark Sanford, Mick Mulvaney, and Trey Gowdy will stay on the sidelines, despite being encouraged to run by small-government conservatives. Rumors that state Senator Tom Davis—who served as Sanford’s gubernatorial chief of staff, and who retains the aura of those small-government days with none of the baggage carried by Sanford himself—turned out to be false. Well-known pols’ reluctance to face off against Graham is telling: They know the former four-term congressman, who has now been in the Senate for over a decade, makes for a formidable and entrenched opponent.

So who’s actually jumped into the race? Five candidates are currently challenging Graham, but each leaves something to be desired. Lee Bright, a Spartanburg native and member of the state senate, leads the pack. He came out swinging: “John McCain has basically been a tool for the Democrat Party for quite a while now,” he said on Fox Business, “and basically Lindsey Graham is following suit.” It was a strong opening salvo, but pundits wondered whether he could back it up. 

Bright is a solid conservative vote, with a 100 percent score from the Club for Growth for the 2013 legislative year, and he received a “Friend of the Taxpayer” award from the Spartanburg County Taxpayers Association. He voted to press pause on Common Core, and cosponsored a bill to prevent Obamacare funding in South Carolina. In 2011, he even voted “no” on Amendment 152 B, which would have given special tax breaks to NASCAR events held in the state. Bright holds only a high school diploma, but he seems attuned to common-sense conservatism. Sounds good, right? Plus, he’s able to rattle off gems such as:

Consultants love the line that government should be run like a business, but businesses need to continue to grow to survive, and in that way, government should absolutely not be run like a business.

But there’s one problem: His small business, On Time Trucking, failed and was at one point in hock to both the state and commercial creditors. In December, when he filed the required financial disclosure forms (which deal in ranges, not specific numbers), he reported owing between $1.4 million and $3.1 million, according to the Spartanburg Herald-Journal. The newspaper previously reported foreclosure proceedings on the company’s property and a $67,000 lein against it by the state for back taxes. A business failure shouldn’t end a man’s career, but it’s tough to talk “fiscal discipline”—much less compete with Graham’s war chest of $7 million—when you’re that deep in the hole. Still, Bright scratches in at 9 percent support in a February poll by Winthrop University. (Graham himself polled at 45 percent, which puts the spread, in case anyone’s counting, at Graham +36.)

Alas, none of the other four GOP primary candidates registered support of more than 4 percent. Richard Cash, a businessman, hasn’t inspired voters outside his district, where he ran second to Jeff Duncan for Congress in 2010. Nancy Mace—the first woman to graduate from The Citadel—made a lot of people hopeful, but her campaign has failed to launch. Bill Connor, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and candidate for lieutenant governor in 2010, hasn’t roused much support. Pastor Det Bowers of Columbia runs in the margin of error.

It must be said, too, that the atmosphere surrounding the opposition to Graham is tainted with lunacy. His detractors at DumpLindsayGraham.com describe his philosophy as “reach across the isle [sic].” One minor candidate, Dave Feliciano, a veteran of the war in Iraq and former policeman referred to Graham, a longtime bachelor, as “the ambiguously gay senator from South Carolina,” a comment to which even his fellow Graham-bashers have objected. (Graham himself has not responded to the remark, and Feliciano later withdrew from the race.)

Not exactly a murder’s row of political luminaries, particularly in South Carolina, a state in which conservatives could have fielded a legitimate opponent.

Maybe these results should come as no surprise. There’s reason to believe that—despite their high profile and political principles—South Carolina’s Tea Party rock stars, guys such as Jim DeMint, Mark Sanford, and Tim Scott, remain outliers. For one thing, the same Winthrop University poll that gives Graham a commanding lead shows that only 12.4 percent of likely South Carolinian primary voters self-identify with the Tea Party.

The Palmetto State boasts the eleventh-highest population of active duty servicemen, standing at nearly 36,000. Approximately one tenth of the population are veterans. An emphasis on “national security” may trump “civil liberty” in the minds of many South Carolina voters, and their families. That’s probably why Graham’s challengers have deferred to his promotion of a strong U.S. military abroad, despite disagreeing with the details.  

Similarly, a 2012 Los Angeles Times story reported that “for every dollar [South Carolina] pays in federal taxes, it receives $1.35 in federal government benefits. By contrast, California receives only 78 cents for every dollar it pays in taxes.”

The report continues:

Much of the money spent in South Carolina goes to the programs that make up a big chunk of the federal budget—defense, Social Security and Medicaid. The state has seven military bases, and received $7 billion in Defense Department spending in 2010. One in five residents in South Carolina receives Social Security benefits—compared with just 13% in California. As an aging state, South Carolina will be more dependent on federal programs such as Social Security in the coming decade, according to AARP.

Recently, the powerful South Carolina Chamber of Commerce opposed an anti-Obamacare amendment offered by state Senator Tom Davis that would bar state agencies from helping citizens purchase insurance through the health care exhanges, and would block South Carolina from ever accepting the feds’ Medicare expansion. Chamber-backed Republicans, as of press time, stand in the way of passage. How’s that for a case in contradiction?

Politically, the Palmetto State is best known for its broad base of conservative ideologies, a tent big enough to cover both big-government Republicans like Lindsey Graham and Tea Party patriarch Jim DeMint. The latter man, DeMint, offers an interesting case study. Before departing the Senate to manage the Heritage Foundation, DeMint delighted libertarians by breaking with the party on the National Defense Authorization Act and military spending. But DeMint’s pivot to matters of federal spending and civil liberties evolved over time. As reported by Kelefa Sanneh in a 2012 New Yorker feature, DeMint’s priorities were always aimed at big government, but, for the better part of the aughts, his conservatism took a decidedly social tone. Remember, this was the guy who released Why We Whisper: Restoring Our Right to Say It’s Wrong in 2007. DeMint and his co-author, J. David Woodard of Clemson University (a former Graham campaign staffer), suggested a “serious culture war.” They focused their ire at “liberal secularists” who were tamping down religious faith in public institutions. Before founding the Senate Conservatives Fund, DeMint was as well-known for his support of school prayer and opposition to embryonic stem cell research as he was for his emphasis on limited government.

The New Yorker notes that in the years since, DeMint has spent “less time talking about the culture war, and more time talking about the federal budget.” By then, he was cultivating the next generation of Republican leaders—guys like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul—who toppled establishment favorites to achieve victory with SCF’s help.

In the run-up to South Carolina’s primary, DeMint hasn’t discussed Lindsey Graham. He’s quietly steered his institution away from the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, he downplayed his grassroots bona fides. As he remarked, “I’m called a senator tea party and I’ve never been a part of the tea party in my life. I’ve been to a lot of meetings.” He begged off Matt Bevin’s insurgent run against Mitch McConnell, and suggested he’s more interested in refining the right ideas. Perhaps it’s a prudent move when Tea Party candidates are trailing incumbent Republicans in every Senate primary—including South Carolina.

Thus, despite near lockstep criticism on the right that Graham is too moderate, and too willing to negotiate with Senate Democrats, it remains unclear that such a tea party message actually resonates with South Carolina voters. As the Columbia paper, the State, reported recently, Graham’s opponents all criticize his votes to confirm President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees and his support for NSA surveillance, but they 

are less uniform in their opposition to the incumbent’s positions on budgeting, health care, immigration, and foreign policy. In those areas, they criticize specific actions Graham has taken, rather than rejecting all of his proposals or actions wholesale.

Still, despite Lindsey Graham’s commanding lead, he needs 50 percent of the vote in June’s Republican primary to avoid a runoff. Polls show him slightly below that—which means one challenger might get to face the incumbent mano-a-mano. But if South Carolina conservatives are to defeat Graham, they must first coalesce around a single candidate. They must organize the opposition. And time is running out. 

For all Graham’s talk about the things that scare him, this primary challenge isn’t one of them. He will almost certainly coast to victory. But more than a decade after September 11, 2001, Americans are waking up to the fact that our rights to peaceably assemble, speak freely, and expect privacy are subject to the judgment of the people we put in office. The question is, will South Carolinians follow suit? 

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Reid Smith writes from Washington. Follow him on Twitter @reidtsmith