During his short-lived campaign for president, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham referred to Donald Trump as a “jackass.”
Graham spoke about the president in a more cooperative tone during a visit to the Upstate earlier this month.
“I am going to help him in every way I can to make America great again,” Graham told members of the Greater Easley Chamber of Commerce.
Observers inside and outside the beltway view the Republican from Seneca as someone who actively navigates the political waters. At times he appears to be a strong conservative who cheers on the GOP leadership. At other times, detractors say, his stances don’t reflect his party’s positions.
Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, compared Graham to a broken clock that is “right twice a day.”
“There are times when he’s right about issues and I agree with him and other times I think he’s not conservative,” she said.
There’s a feeling among some that Graham follows a left-to-right political trajectory that coincides with the timing of elections.
“He gets so conservative come election time. He knows that in between election cycles that he can say whatever he wants to say,” said Dan Harvell, an Anderson County Republican who serves on the state GOP executive committee. “We just feel like we have two senators in one body.”
Brent Bozell, president of the conservative Media Research Center, offered a similar assessment.
“Lindsey Graham is the kind of politician who runs for re-election promising conservatives everything and then delivers on nothing,” Bozell said. “And you come to conclude that he just didn’t mean it.”
Graham, who was easily elected to a third Senate term in 2014, insists he is a consistent conservative who works with Democrats “when it makes sense.”
“The bottom line for me is I try to solve a problem,” he said in a recent interview.
Dwelling on immigration
Immigration is an issue where South Carolina’s senior senator takes the strongest beating from Republicans. He earned the nickname “Lindsey Graham-nesty” from talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, and it’s a moniker used by his most conservative critics.
Graham was part of bipartisan group of senators known as the “Gang of Eight” who drafted a comprehensive immigration reform measure in 2013. The bill passed in the Senate but stalled in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In July, Graham and Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois reintroduced legislation known as the Dream Act, which would allow undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children to earn permanent residency. Graham and Durbin and two of the bill’s co-sponsors — U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York — were part of the “Gang of Eight.”
During a news conference on the Dream Act, Graham said he didn’t want people to vote for him if they don’t share his immigration stance.
“To the people who object to this, I don’t want you to vote for me because I cannot serve you well,” Graham said. “I just don’t see the upside of telling these kids they have to go back, live in the shadows, or send them back to a country they have no idea about the country.”
Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for lower legal immigration levels, said Graham “better hope that the voters don’t take his advice.”
“If the voters who disagree with him on immigration voted against him, he would lose next time around,” Beck said. “because he does not reflect the immigration desires of the people of South Carolina.”
Graham dismissed Beck’s prediction. He said he believes most of his constituents would support the Dream Act if they believed the U.S. border was secure.
During his speech in Easley, Graham said he hopes Trump can strike a deal on immigration.
“I think you will see President Trump being willing to give legal status to some of the illegal immigrants who are not bad hombres if he can get better border security and more robust legal immigration,” he said. “I may be wrong but I think he can fix this.”
Different places, different issues
Two weeks after reintroducing the Dream Act, Graham joined Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, in sponsoring a bill that would prevent Trump from firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller without judicial review. Mueller is leading the probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Graham didn’t mention the special counsel bill or the Dream Act during his Aug. 9 speeches to the Easley chamber and at a Seneca Rotary Club luncheon. Instead, Graham focused mostly on a plan that he and Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana have devised to reform the Affordable Care Act.
“It is a simple idea: take all of the money that we are going to spend on Obamacare in Washington and send it back to the states and let them spend it,” he said.
Graham said the plan would require continued coverage of people with preexisting health conditions while eliminating a tax on medical devices and financial penalties for individuals who don’t buy health insurance.
“We create as much flexibility as possible to deliver healthcare unique to each state,” said Graham, adding that South Carolina would receive more federal funding under his plan.
After devoting months to an unsuccessful effort to pass a healthcare reform bill, many political observers expect the GOP-controlled Congress will move on to other issues this fall such as tax reform.
Graham said Republicans shouldn’t give up after spending years vowing to tackle healthcare reform. He said his plan is “the last best chance we’ll have.”
“I’m going to fight for this,” he said. “I’m going to push hard.”
An ‘extremely brilliant’ politician
As he often does, Graham began his speech in Easley talking about his humble upbringing in Central, where his parents ran a liquor store and pool hall.
“Going from the back of a liquor store in Central to the United States Senate is a pretty amazing journey,” he said. “I miss the liquor store — they were better people.”
During his 24-year political career, Graham, 62, has never lost an election. He served one term in the South Carolina House of Representatives and two terms in the U.S. House before replacing the iconic Strom Thurmond in the U.S. Senate in 2003.
In 2014, Graham trounced six little-known challengers in the Republican primary before handily defeating three other opponents in the general election. He raised more than $13 million for his re-election campaign, nearly three times the combined total of his foes.
Graham’s Republican challengers criticized him for his views on immigration and for voting for two of President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominees. But Harvell, the GOP state executive committee member from Anderson County, said Graham neutralized their attacks by saturating the air waves with campaign ads portraying himself as a staunch conservative.
Graham ended his bid for the GOP presidential nomination in December 2015, just weeks before the first ballots were cast in the race that Trump ultimately won.
In the latest Winthrop Poll, conducted in South Carolina in April, 45 percent of respondents approved of Graham’s performance as a senator, compared to 47 percent who disapproved. In comparison, 43 percent of the poll’s respondents approved of Trump’s performance as president, with 47 percent expressing disapproval.
The results were markedly different among Republicans and independents who lean Republican. According to the poll, 79 percent of this group approved of Trump, compared to 49 percent who approved of Graham.
Harvell said Graham has benefited in the past from Democratic support in the state’s primaries, which are open to all voters.
“He is not conservative enough to threaten them,” said Harvell, adding that he has seen emails encouraging Democrats to vote for Graham in GOP primaries.
Liz Carey, who is president of Anderson County Democratic Women, said she voted for Graham in 2014 because of his willingness to reach across the aisle and work with Democrats. She also said Graham’s experience and seniority as a senator benefits South Carolina.
Trav Robertson, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said Graham is an “extremely brilliant” politician.
“He talks one way and acts another way,” Robertson said. But he also said Graham’s good fortunes with voters may eventually end.
“At some point, you have to pay the piper,” he said.
Contrasting comments on Trump
During his speeches in Easley and Seneca this month, Graham praised Trump’s plans to bolster U.S. armed forces, as well as his handling of heightened tensions with North Korea.
“When it comes to rebuilding the military, I will be President Trump’s strongest ally in the Senate,” Graham said in Easley. “When it comes to dealing with threats from terrorism and rogue states like North Korea, I’ll be by his side. He is our president.”
“One thing that I would tell you about President Trump, don’t underestimate this guy. I did,” he told members of the Rotary Club in Seneca. “He will do what is necessary to protect America.”
During a recent appearance on Fox News, Graham lauded Trump’s strategy to seek a lasting military victory in Afghanistan.
“I’m proud of the fact that President Trump made a national security decision, not a political decision,” said Graham, a retired U.S. Air Force Reserve colonel who has made more than 40 trips to Afghanistan and Iraq. “I’m most proud of the fact that he shows the will to stand up to radical Islam.”
In Easley, Graham also said he thinks Trump can ease the divisive rancor that now dominates the nation’s political discourse.
“We’re talking about how all of us are getting screwed by different people for different reasons. That’s not the way America used to be,” Graham said. “I am hoping that tone will change. And President Trump, believe it or not, has the ability to bring us together on issues because he is such a unique personality.”
One week later, Graham slammed Trump for “suggesting there is moral equivalency between white supremacist neo-Nazis and KKK members” and a woman who died when a car plowed into a group of counter-protesters after a violent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“Your words are dividing Americans, not healing them,” Graham said in a statement issued by his office.
Trump fired back the next day in a tweet describing Graham’s remarks as a “disgusting lie.”
“He just can’t forget his election trouncing,” Trump added. “The people of South Carolina will remember!”
One Anderson County Republican voter said he has lost faith in Graham after his criticism of Trump’s comments about the events in Charlottesville. “Please shut up with the pathetic political rhetoric that you keep spewing all in the name of pandering to whatever forces you think are the next most powerful wind blower group that you are trying to impress,” Starr resident Matthew Hilley said in an Aug. 17 Facebook post.
“The anti-Trump hate you continue to push will not be successful and will backfire!” added Hilley, who attended Trump’s inauguration in January. “Senator, in the past I have defended you, supported you (not all the time) and even voted for you!” Hilley wrote. “However, I assure you that I will not make that mistake again without a major change in your personal agenda!”