WASHINGTON — These days, Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina isn’t deriding town hall hecklers as a bunch of “angry white guys” or branding as losers the conservative activists who criticize him at the S.C. GOP’s convention.
Starting his 18th year in Congress, Graham also is not writing New York Times columns with U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., on the dangers of climate change, pitching immigration reform or predicting the demise of the Tea Party.
Instead, Graham is struggling to respond to the political force of Republican insurgents who helped elect backbench legislator Nikki Haley South Carolina’s governor in 2010 and, last month, gave Newt Gingrich’s anti-Washington presidential campaign its only win so far, in the state’s Republican Primary.
Is the recalibrated Graham just being a shrewd pol, adapting to the times? Or is he running scared, afraid of a serious primary challenge in 2014?
Graham sat in his Capitol Hill office earlier this month, pondering those questions for a moment or two, which, for the Seneca Republican, is a rhetorical eternity.
Then, he responded in typical fashion.
“I fear God,” he quipped with a laugh, easing into what sounded like the outline of a stump speech.
“My profile is — I’m conservative, not an ideologue,” Graham said.
Midway through his second term in the Senate, Graham assesses himself as better prepared now than ever before to help the nation and his state.
“I want to be a guy that Democrats can find common ground with on the issues of the day,” Graham said. “I want to do something on Social Security and Medicare. I want to find a way to get Tea Party Republicans and conservative Reagan Republicans, like myself, and some middle-of-the-road Democrats in a room to solve problems.”
Asked again whether he fears a primary fight, Graham cut to the chase.
“No, I don’t fear one; I expect one,” he said. “In politics, you have to earn these jobs, and I just feel real prepared.”
‘Graham is really an outcast’
In his first Senate re-election campaign, in 2008, Graham swamped his GOP challenger, then soundly defeated the Democratic nominee.
Now, in Myrtle Beach, Tea Party leader Joe Dugan already is marshaling activists to make sure Graham faces a formidable foe in two years.
“Graham is really an outcast,” Dugan said. “He stands out like a sore thumb in a state as conservative as South Carolina. I wish he were up for re-election this year so we could vote him out.”
Good luck with that, said Barry Wynn, a former state Republican Party chairman. Wynn — the campaign treasurer for South Carolina’s other U.S. senator, Tea Party darling Jim DeMint of Greenville — has close ties with conservative activists across the state.
“I can tell you there are some noisy people who would like to run somebody against Lindsey Graham, but they really represent a fairly small minority,” Wynn said. “My money would be on Lindsey to win any Republican Primary in the state by a landslide.”
Wynn also cited Graham’s fundraising prowess, noting many of DeMint’s biggest campaign contributors also give generously to Graham.
DeMint, the onetime Republican backbencher who has risen in stature to national conservative icon, disagrees with critics who brand Graham as a RINO — a “Republican in Name Only.”
“Lindsey has been a really great partner of mine on just about every issue — Social Security reform, tax reform, a balanced-budget amendment,” DeMint said. “He’s passionate and great at what he does.”
In a Clemson University poll last November, Graham fared reasonably well among Republican voters: Sixty-three percent approved of his performance as senator versus 23 percent who disapproved.
“If somebody’s going to tackle Lindsey, they’d better pack two lunches because he’s going to eat the first one,” said Katon Dawson of Columbia, also a former state GOP chief.
“He’s always going to be well-financed,” Dawson said. “And Lindsey is probably more informed on national issues than most senators in Washington. He’s paid a tremendous amount of attention to problems back home, he’s accessible, he works hard and he’s got an amazing breadth of knowledge.”
Wynn and other prominent S.C. Republicans say Graham is popular with the state’s business leaders, citing his ongoing efforts to get federal money for the deepening of Charleston’s port.
Wynn and Dawson also cite Graham’s support among active-duty and retired military personnel, who like his hawkish views, his active-duty service in Iraq and Afghanistan as a military lawyer in the Air Force Reserve and his friendships with powerful folks in high places, including CIA director David Petraeus, the retired general who became a Graham fan while commanding U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Senator Graham is a devoted patriot, a steadfast supporter of our military, an accomplished Air Force Reserve officer, a terrific wit and a great gut to have in your corner and watching your back,” Petraeus told an audience of S.C. political and business leaders last month at the Columbia Convention Center.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also has sent Graham on secret missions abroad since the former Democratic U.S. senator assumed the nation’s top diplomatic post three years ago.
Classified diplomatic cables, released by WikiLeaks and obtained by McClatchy, show Graham warning Pakistani government leaders against appeasing radical Muslims and upbraiding Chinese officials about currency manipulation, only to be scolded by them for meddling in domestic affairs.
‘Better than 50-50’
Myrtle Beach’s Dugan is unimpressed.
State coordinator for the S.C. Tea Party Coalition, Dugan is putting out feelers to prospective Graham challengers. He declined to name them, but he dropped some hints.
Asked whether he is courting freshman U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, another fast-rising conservative star from South Carolina and one of two African-American Republicans in Congress, Dugan responded: “You’re getting warm.”
Scott, a North Charleston Republican and former state representative, hastened to dampen such hopes with a denial that, if not ironclad, was fairly firm. “I have no plans to run against the senator,” he said.
Dugan and other conservative activists also are enamored of Scott’s fellow first-term S.C. congressmen. But all three Republicans — U.S. Reps. Mick Mulvaney of Indian Land, Jeff Duncan of Laurens and Trey Gowdy of Spartanburg — disavowed any interest in challenging Graham.
Not so with state Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican, real estate lawyer and onetime top aide to former Gov. Mark Sanford.
Word on the street is that Davis actively is contemplating a 2014 run against Graham. More than a dozen GOP leaders and activists interviewed for this story said they are aware of Davis’ interest.
At a recent annual convention of the Conservative Political Action Committee in Washington, a S.C. political operative with close ties to Davis, granted anonymity in order to speak candidly, put the odds at “better than 50-50” that Davis will challenge Graham.
Asked about that prospect, Davis responded: “I haven’t really given it any thought.”
Then, he quickly corrected himself.
“That’s not fair. Obviously, as a politician, you look at the opportunities that might lie ahead.”
While saying he is focused on getting re-elected to his state Senate seat in the fall, Davis added, “I haven’t ruled anything out, and I haven’t ruled anything in.”
Davis then gave an assessment of Graham that sounded as if he already is running against the Seneca Republican.
“I do disagree with him in regard to his policies on cap and trade,” Davis said. “I do disagree with him on immigration. I do disagree with him on confirming the two nominees to the Supreme Court” — Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — “that President Obama put forward.”
Davis continued: “I’ve been critical of him and some other Republicans who I don’t think take the deficit and debt as seriously as they should.”
‘Put my record up against anybody’s’
Graham rejects such criticism, citing his longtime support for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. “When it comes to fiscal conservatism, I’ll put my record up against anybody’s.”
Still, Graham readily contrasts his focus on streamlining the federal government and making it more efficient with many Tea Party activists’ desire to slash it significantly, eliminating whole agencies and leaving only a few core functions.
“At the end of the day, you can talk about reshaping the government,” Graham said. “Ronald Reagan did it incrementally. He tried to bring about change. But are we going to stop veterans’ checks? Are we going to basically not pay the military?
“Somebody up here has to make sure that we find a way to do the basics of government.”