Sen. Lindsey Graham is poised to become the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the next Congress, giving him both influence and exposure — and a new, politically risky stature as a Democratic target.
Aside from running for president in 2015, the South Carolina Republican has never held a position with such a high level of visibility and unique set of challenges in his decades-long career.
Now he’s about to move into one of Congress’ most visible positions as he and President Donald Trump prepare to run for re-election in 2020.
Graham’s primary responsibility will be moving Trump’s judicial nominees through the Senate, helping the president cement his legacy by confirming conservative judges to lifetime tenures on the federal bench.
The senator could also wind up overseeing the confirmation of new Supreme Court justices. Two are currently above the age of 80, making the possibility of at least one vacancy in the next two years more likely than not.
Graham could use his chairmanship to promote himself as a party loyalist and conservative crusader, crucial for insulating himself against a primary challenger in two years.
But the farther to the right Graham goes, the easier it will be for Democrats to energize their base to vilify him. Already, Jaime Harrison, a Democratic National Committee official and former state party chairman, is weighing running against him.
Graham for years had been seen by Democrats as one of the go-to Republicans they could work with, but the senator in recent weeks has signaled he may no longer be that figure.
He emerged from Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings convinced the other party was willing to break the rules to prevent the nominee from being seated. That took him out on the campaign trail to urge voters to reject Democratic incumbents — a first for Graham, who had never before campaigned against his colleagues.
“Boy, do you all want power,” Graham said famously to Democrats during the Kavanaugh hearings. “God, I hope you never get it.”
Several times over the past several weeks, Graham said ominously that, as Judiciary chairman, he “will remember” Democrats’ actions during the Kavanaugh hearings. He did not elaborate on what he meant.
As chairman, Graham will be in a position to direct attention to some of his longtime legislative priorities, such as overhauling immigration policies and the criminal justice system. These are areas where he has partnered with Democrats in the past.
Yet even if he decides he wants to embrace his dealmaking history, he faces real obstacles. Lawmakers have been working on these issues for years with little success.
Ultimately, Graham’s commitment to helping the president, and playing to the Republican base, could be tested in how he navigates inevitable controversies surrounding the White House special counsel’s investigation into possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia during the 2016 campaign.
Graham has repeatedly said Special Counsel Robert Mueller should be able to complete his work. At one point, he suggested it was unnecessary to advance legislation that would protect Mueller from being fired, but is now suggesting an openness to passing the bill as a added layer of protection against the official.
The Senate could confirm a new attorney general in the coming weeks, but if that stretches into the next Congress, Graham could be in charge of that process. He will have to decide how hard to push the nominee on whether he’d support Mueller’s probe, which Trump has derided as a “witch hunt.”
Graham is expected to receive the assignment based on his seniority on the committee. His promotion was contingent upon the current chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, deciding to assume seniority on the Senate Finance Committee. Grassley has chosen to make that move, making way for Graham.