Why Lindsey Graham Isn’t Afraid of a Conservative Challenger

Stacy Kaper

Two-term Sen. Lindsey Graham expects a primary challenge from the right, making his starring role in immigration reform a confounding political vulnerability for the South Carolina Republican.

Graham knows it, too. But he thinks he’s correct—on both the policy and the politics. Graham says his position on immigration is in line with voters’ evolving sentiment on the issue—namely, that voters in South Carolina oppose the “de facto amnesty” in place under the current “broken” system. And it has not gone unnoticed by Republican strategists that Graham enjoys some political cover created by conservative Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., stepping out front on immigration.

But just in case he’s wrong, Graham is raising buckets of cash and getting in front of voters—a lot.

“I am running hard, raising money, traveling throughout the state and the country,” Graham told National Journal Daily. “I expect [a primary challenge], but we are doing very well at home.”

With $5.4 million, Graham has the second-highest amount of cash on hand of any senator in the cycle, bested only by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “That didn’t happen by accident,” said Scott Farmer, Graham’s campaign manager. “Senator Graham is determined to have the financial resources he needs.”

Still, there is ample reason for Graham to be wary.

The conservative Club for Growth has picked Graham as a top target for 2014 and is closely monitoring his votes and the candidates who enter his primary field. Groups opposed to immigration reform, such as NumbersUSA, are running ads against Graham in South Carolina.

And last weekend, a loud but unsuccessful band of tea-party loyalists and libertarians tried to thwart the senator’s path to reelection with an attempt to change the rules governing how state Republicans pick their candidate.

It all appears to have taken a toll. An April Winthrop poll found that Graham’s approval rating among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents had dropped to 58 percent, down from 72 percent in February.

Small-business owner Richard Cash, who narrowly lost in a 2010 primary runoff to Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., plans to challenge Graham in the primary and is trying to position himself as a more principled, faith-based Christian conservative. He told National Journal Daily that Graham has not spoken out enough on social issues, such as traditional marriage and antiabortion causes, and he criticized the senator for supporting President Obama’s nominations of Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, “leading the party in the wrong direction on immigration,” and siding against Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster on drones.

Others are contemplating bids, too, including South Carolina state Sen. Lee Bright and Nancy Mace, the first female graduate from The Citadel, South Carolina’s famed military college.

But Graham, who in 2008 had to overcome the “Grahamnesty” tag after his bruising involvement in the 2007 immigration-reform debate, seems unafraid to be burned by the issue twice.

Graham said he did not expect immigration to be as much of a hindrance to reelection as it had been before. “Not like it was,” he said. “I hope it will turn out to be a positive that I took a hard problem and solved it.”

Karen Floyd, a former chairwoman of the South Carolina Republican Party, said Graham’s risky engagement on the topic reflects a gamble that will ultimately serve the party. And Graham has been clear in his belief that the GOP needs to court the fastest-growing group of voters—Latinos.

“He is looking at a bigger picture,” Floyd said. “The numbers are overwhelming, in terms of the demographic Latino not voting Republican because of the message that the Republican Party has developed and sent, and so consequently I think he sees this as an opportunity to embrace a demographic that is a really fast-growing population.”

Although the polling on immigration in South Carolina appears muddled, depending on how questions are framed, the state’s business community has supported reform this time around.

For all his work on immigration, Graham tries to keep his predominant image associated with security. He has played a leading role in questioning the Obama administration’s response to the Benghazi attack, arguing loudly for stepped-up involvement in Syria, and criticizing the administration’s handling of warnings from Russian authorities about the deceased Boston Marathon bombing suspect.

Indeed, his criticism of the administration, which plays well with his base in a state where Obama is unpopular, has noticeably ratcheted up.

That’s something Graham himself acknowledges: “Anytime you challenge the president, Obama, it’s good politics,” he told The New York Times.