U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham dropped out of the Republican presidential race Monday, saying his campaign helped make foreign policy a top issue despite failing to gain traction.
In a video message, Graham recalled saying, early in his campaign, “Any candidate who did not understand that we need more American troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIL (the Islamic State terrorist organization) is not ready to be commander in chief.
“At that time, no one stepped forward to join me,” Graham said, adding, “Today, most of my fellow candidates have come to recognize this is what’s needed to secure our homeland.”
In a CNN interview, Graham said he “has no intention of endorsing anyone right now” but will consider supporting another GOP presidential candidate.
Graham previously had said he planned to wait until the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary to re-evaluate his campaign. But he decided to move forward that timetable and drop off because his candidacy has failed to gain traction.
“I don’t want to be the undercard voice,” Graham said, adding it has been frustrating being “put at the kiddie table.”
Graham’s national poll numbers – reaching 2 percent briefly last spring – disqualified him from participating in several prime-time GOP presidential debates, where he could have interacted directly with GOP frontrunner Donald Trump and other leading candidates.
Instead, Graham participated in earlier “happy hour” debates where he performed well, according to reviews, but did not get the same exposure.
“You just can’t punch through when you have a two-tier system,” Graham told CNN Monday, adding the best way for him to make a difference is to consider supporting another candidate while continuing to share his message. “We’re going to have to start consolidating as Republicans.”
Graham’s exit frees backers
Graham started out strong in South Carolina polls and raised $1.3 million in the state through the end of September, more than any other presidential candidate. But his support quickly dropped off. Some polls showed most S.C. Republicans thought Graham should drop out.
In South Carolina, Graham’s support — 17 percent support in a February poll — had fallen to 2 percent in recent polls. Graham has polled around 1 percent or less in most national polls.
Graham’s decision to quit the race Monday was on the same day as the deadline to have his name removed from the ballot in the state’s Feb. 20 primary.
Graham’s exit is expected to cause a realignment of GOP support in the Palmetto State.
“It matters where Lindsey goes, and the endorsements will matter this time,” said Graham friend Katon Dawson, a Columbia political consultant and former S.C. GOP chairman, who has considered launching a super PAC to oppose Trump.
“Let’s see where the fundraising goes,” added Dawson. “That’s what Lindsey has had on the sidelines: big check writers.”
Many influential S.C. GOP donors have been backing Graham out of loyalty to the state’s senior senator.
David Wilkins, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada who was Graham’s finance chairman, had said previously he would support former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush if Graham quit the race.
“We all owe him a debt of gratitude,” Wilkins said Monday of Graham. “He changed the course of the presidential debate by his strong position on national defense ... and the real threat of ISIS and the need to have American troops involved.”
Asked whether he now would back Bush, Wilkins said he preferred to discuss any future endorsements at a later date, out of respect for Graham.
Graham’s financial backers likely will take their time to get behind another candidate, waiting to see who gains more traction, predicted Scott Buchanan, a political scientist at The Citadel.
“It remains to be seen where most of those supporters go because we’re still seeing a great deal of shuffling in public opinion,” said Buchanan, noting the rise of U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida in the polls.
Now that Graham has exited the race, other bottom-tier candidates likely will follow his lead, Buchanan added.
Dawson said many South Carolinians are happy Graham, elected to a third term last year despite a GOP primary challenge, can focus again on his U.S. Senate job. “There a lot of people saying, ‘I’m glad he’s back.’ ”
Fight ‘for the heart and soul’ of the GOP
Graham’s announcement comes after spending the weekend campaigning in New Hampshire with U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who told audiences that Graham had “more qualifications than all of the others.”
On Monday, McCain — a longtime Graham friend and ally, and the 2008 GOP presidential nominee — said Graham’s campaign was successful in a way.
“Lindsey stood up to and helped stem the rise within our party of isolationism and obliviousness in world affairs, and indifference to human suffering,” he said.
The Democratic National Committee also noted Graham’s exit.
While the Republican Party has “made a big deal about supporting immigration reform and reaching out to Hispanic voters ... the one presidential candidate who has consistently favored comprehensive immigration reform just dropped out of the race after attracting virtually no support,” DNC spokesman Eric Walker said of Graham.
“At the same time, the party’s front-runner has consistently demonized immigrant communities,” Walker said, referring to Trump.
Graham has been a vocal critic of Trump, earning insults from the billionaire New York real-estate mogul and reality-TV star who, in one retaliatory moment, gave out Graham’s cell-phone number.
But asked by CNN whether he would support Trump or Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, if the race came down to those two candidates, Graham said, “I’m going to support the Republican nominee.”
Graham also did not answer a question from CNN on whether he would accept a position in a Trump administration if Trump wins the presidency, saying that he is focused on improving the GOP.
“This is an election for the heart and soul of the Republican Party,” he said.