U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham is getting ready to put his renewed popularity with conservative voters to use.
After receiving praise from the right for his now-viral, verbal attack on Senate Democrats during U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, Graham’s campaign said he is planning to tour South Carolina and the country to campaign for Republican candidates for 12 straight days
The Seneca Republican — not up for re-election until 2020, when Democrats hope to defeat him — is trying to use his new influence with the right to help the GOP retain control of the U.S. House and Senate.
“It’s a good use of my time,” Graham told reporters in Columbia over the weekend. “If I can help some of our candidates raise a little money and get a little enthusiasm, it’ll be time well spent.”
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Graham’s official travel schedule has not yet been released.
But Graham confirmed he will be campaigning for incumbent GOP S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster, who faces Democratic state Rep. James Smith on Nov. 6.
This Sunday, Graham also will headline a rally with state Rep. Katie Arrington, the Summerville Republican who faces Democrat Joe Cunningham in the state’s most-watched congressional race, the contest for Mark Sanford’s 1st District seat.
Graham also recently stumped for father-and-son Lexington Republicans U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson and S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson while at a joint Lexington-Richland GOP event.
Outside of South Carolina, Graham will visit Indiana for the Allen County Republican Party’s annual fundraising dinner on Nov. 1. Enthusiasm over Graham’s attendance caused tickets to the Fort Wayne event to sell out faster than ever before, the local party chair told media.
In Missouri, state Treasurer Eric Schmitt tweeted Graham should campaign for Republican Senate candidate Josh Hawley, who is challenging incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill.
“It’s been incredible,” Graham said of his party’s reaction to his role in the Kavanaugh debate. “I haven’t had anything like it since (Bill Clinton’s) impeachment.”
(A member of the U.S. House in 1991, Graham was a House prosecutor in Clinton’s Senate impeachment trial.)
Being asked to campaign for GOP candidates before the midterm is a new experience for Graham, who has faced opposition from his own state party’s conservative voting bloc in recent years.
Two years ago, fresh off a short-lived, failed bid for the Republican nomination for president, Graham was not a likely GOP campaign surrogate. Graham had faced censure votes in his own Upstate over his stances on immigration and taxes, and for voting for Democratic President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, Sonia Sotomayer and Elena Kagan.
“They felt like he was going more liberal,” recalled Anderson County GOP Chair Cheryl Cuthrell, describing how local Republicans regarded Graham. “We were waiting for people to stand up to Barack Obama. Graham was not as strong on some issues. We felt like he and (the late U.S. Sen. John) McCain were going too far left.”
Post-Kavanaugh, those concerns have been washed away.
GOP strategists note the GOP’s conservative base is more energized than ever, including Republican women who say they applaud the #MeToo movement but don’t believe Kavanaugh sexually assaulted a woman decades ago.
Graham is capitalizing on that energy.
“I’ve found a new found respect for him,” Anderson’s Cuthrell said. “A lot of people gained respect for Lindsey.”
‘I’m going to push back’
Graham is reveling in his new role as a spokesman for the conservative movement.
He appears almost daily on Fox News as the face of conservative rage against Democrats.
Graham’s new star status was cemented in a single speech delivered last month at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s follow-up hearing with Kavanaugh. Graham accused Democrats of playing political games with a man’s reputation and called the controversy the biggest sham he has seen in his congressional career.
Subsequently, a line from Graham’s speech — “unethical sham” — became the subject line of a fundraising email that Graham sent out in behalf of vulnerable U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nevada..
“Senate Democrats orchestrated the most unethical sham I’ve seen since I’ve been in politics because they will do ANYTHING to take the Senate majority. ANYTHING,” reads the email, ostensibly from Graham. “And my friend Dean Heller is their top target in the entire country.”
Another email, this time asking for money for U.S. Rep. Martha McSally of Arizona, who is running for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Republican Jeff Flake, said, “Like millions of Americans, I was disgusted by Senate Democrats’ behavior during Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation battle. The hearings were a sham.”
While the lure of the spotlight is real, so, too, is Graham’s belief the November midterm elections should be a referendum on the Kavanaugh debate, particularly when it comes to the Senate, which Republicans control by the slimmest majority — 51 to 49.
“It’s more important to me than ever that we stay in control of this body,” Graham said in a recent Capitol Hill interview. “What happened needs to be taken to the ballot box.”
Graham’s anger with Democrats over the Kavanaugh confirmation is so great that he said he is going to campaign against incumbent Democratic senators for the very first time — “a change in attitude,” he said.
“This is a business,” Graham said. “I’ve tried to focus on the problem-solving parts of it. But, after Kavanaugh, I think power was abused there, and so I’m going to push back.”
‘I don’t think it’ll hurt me’
A willingness to work across the political aisle with Democrats has been part of Graham’s political brand.
The Seneca Republican wants to be chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee next year, a position that would put him in charge of vetting any future Supreme Court justices but require him to get along with Democrats.
Also, Graham noted last weekend in Columbia passing any immigration overhaul bill — his legislative “white whale” — would require help from Democrats.
“I’ll still be me when it comes to solving problems,” Graham shrugged.
However, Graham’s newly adopted partisan persona on the campaign trail could undermine his ability to work with Democrats and get things done, especially if he sets out to defeat Democratic senators.
Yet if Graham continues to work with Democrats on issues that traditionally have alienated the Republican right — providing a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants, for example — conservatives could decide again that they have had it with Graham.
Graham’s on-and-off relationship with S.C. Democrats — some of whom view him as the most palatable Republican the state can elect — also is threatened.
Graham’s discounting of Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford enraged Democrats around the country, including in the senator’s home state.
Next Tuesday, S.C. women will gather in Columbia for their 27th annual “I Believe Anita Hill” party — an event named for the woman who accused Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas of harassment in 1991.
“It’s weighing on us,” one of the party’s hosts, Allison Terracio, said of the Kavanaugh controversy.
“I was in high school during Anita Hill. It didn’t affect me the way it affected our (party) founders,” said Terracio, a Democrat who is running for Richland County Council’s District 5 seat. “I can remember one woman saying that when Clarence Thomas was confirmed, she remembers crying in her kitchen. The day Brett Kavanaugh got confirmed, I just let out this blood-curdling yell in my home. I can see why, 27 years later, we keep this party going.”
Meanwhile, Jaime Harrison, the former S.C. Democratic Party chair who now is an associate chairman of the Democratic National Committee, says he is considering running for the Senate against Graham in 2020.
But Graham isn’t worried, citing his late friend McCain, who had no problem campaigning against incumbent Democrats.
“It didn’t hurt him. I don’t think it’ll hurt me.”