Lindsey Graham: An Immigration-Reform Survivor

Elahe Izadi and Fawn Johnson

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina isn’t the only Republican who has ticked off his party’s activist base on immigration. But he is one of the very few who brings up the sensitive issue in the run-up to his reelection campaigns. He risked his Senate seat to fight for comprehensive reforms in 2007, and he is now the only senator in the “Gang of Eight” who’s on the ballot in 2014, and needs to make the sale to a conservative Palmetto State electorate.

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“I’m going to make you a bet," Graham told National Journal. "I’m going to get reelected if I’m doing smart things for people in the country and the party, and I care about the party, not just me.…The worst thing that’ll happen to me is I’ll go home and practice law.”

In 2007, Graham was censured by Republican Party leaders back home and tagged by Rush Limbaugh as “Lindsey Graham-nesty” after he supported immigration reforms during the Bush administration’s push. But after easily winning his primary, he looks to have built up political capital for him to make a second push on immigration. Unlike his colleague John McCain, who moved to the right to avoid losing a contentious 2010 Senate primary, Graham’s views have largely remained consistent.

In Graham’s view, the political tide may have turned on immigration, especially because the 2012 election has caused a great deal of soul-searching within the GOP. Graham said he thinks it's not just the country but also the Republican Party that needs to fix the immigration system. "From a party point of view, after the 2012 election, if you don’t think this has hurt us with Latino voters, we’re just on different planets," Graham said.

Just as the heat over the immigration debate has subsided nationally, it also has in conservative South Carolina. “I don’t think anything has pushed that hot button yet,” former South Carolina GOP Chair Katon Dawson says. “But all you have to do is throw amnesty out there, and it’ll come charging back.”

Graham still isn’t likely to coast to 2014, acknowledging he'll "get a certain amount of criticism, a certain amount of appreciation for trying to solve a hard problem." Dawson said that given the “bare-knuckled” nature of South Carolina politics, Graham is likely to draw a primary challenge. Outside groups, such as the deep-pocketed Club for Growth, may get involved if the right type of challenger emerges. The group has been a leading critic of Graham’s, but over fiscal issues, not immigration.

Graham, however, starts off with a well-funded campaign account to fend off potential criticism, banking $4.4 million at the end of last September.

“Primaries are unusual things with the core base voting, but Lindsey Graham is a street fighter when it comes to elections,” Dawson said. “He works. He’s got a tough hide.”