SC’s Graham bound for bigger things if Senate changes hands Tuesday

Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC-R)
Sen. Lindsey Graham (SC-R) MCT

Lindsey Graham of South Carolina joined the Senate the last time the Republican Party took over control of the chamber in the 2002 midterms.

He was a freshman senator, still in the shadow of the state’s perennial statesman Strom Thurmond.

But now on the eve of a possible third term, with a likely victory over Democratic challenger Brad Hutto, Graham is in prime position to gain from the shifting tides of Congress.

If Republicans win control of the Senate on Election Day, Graham’s clout on issues from military spending to foreign aid could be magnified on Capitol Hill.

“Graham is in a good position to benefit if the Senate flips,” said Danielle Vinson, a Furman University political science professor.

When a new party takes control of a house of Congress, its members take over the top positions of all congressional committees and subcommittees.

This gives the new majority party expanded power to set the agenda for Congress. It last happened in the Senate in 2007 and in the House of Representatives in 2011.

Graham told McClatchy that a new Senate Republican majority would give him chairmanship of at least two subcommittees, including one Armed Services subcommittee that focuses on both active duty and military retiree issues that affect South Carolinians.

“(The Personnel) Subcommittee is so important to me because I have a chance to mold policy regarding the people who serve and their families,” Graham said.

The subcommittee has oversight over issues in the military regarding health care, education, military commissaries and compensation policies.

“That’s a big deal for me,” said Graham, who served in the U.S. Air Force. “I look forward to having that position.”

Already outspoken on defense issues, Graham would meet little resistance if he wanted to take ownership of an Armed Services subcommittee, Vinson said.

“When it comes to Armed Services, there’s no qualm about him in the Republican Party,” she said.

Graham says the personnel subcommittee also would focus on reforming military health care benefits and compensation policies. He hopes to bring renewed attention to combating suicide and sexual assault in the military.

“The military is not a bunch of machines, it is people,” Graham said.

His continued work on military issues and his interest in foreign policy could bolster his stature in a state with a heavy military presence, said Gibbs Knotts, a College of Charleston political science professor.

“As the budgets are being tightened and they have to make some difficult decisions about the future direction of the military, for him to be at the table as a representative of this state is really important,” Knotts said.

South Carolina’s delegation has a history with military personnel oversight. Another South Carolina congressman, Rep. Joe Wilson, is the current chairman on the subcommittee in the House of Representatives.

“The Armed Services Committee and the Military Personnel Subcommittee have been very bipartisan and I know that Lindsey would continue that tradition,” Wilson told McClatchy.

With membership on the Senate Appropriations and Budget Committees as well, Graham wants to push back on military spending cuts that he says damage military readiness.

“My number one goal is to replace the defense cuts that are going to destroy the military,” he said. “You’ll have people without equipment or equipment without people.”

Graham said he would also be in charge of an Appropriations subcommittee that oversees foreign aid.

Political experts say Graham will be valuable for a Republican Congress in its relations with the executive branch.

“One of the things that positions Graham well. . . if the Republicans take over the Senate is he is one of the few of them that actually has a relationship with the White House,” Vinson said.

Graham and his close ally Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have been consistent, outspoken critics of the Obama administration’s approach to national security and foreign policy. But they have also been tapped by the White House to take foreign trips to countries like Egypt.

Vinson says this relationship, albeit rocky, will make Graham valuable to congressional Republicans since “they’re going to at least be stuck with a Democratic White House for two years.”

Republican political consultant David Woodard said Graham is well-positioned to build on his national reputation with a likely third term.

“Various national senators take different roles because they believe they’re safe at home,” said Woodard, who also teaches at Clemson University.

In order to secure a Senate majority, Graham and other senior Republican senators in relatively secure races, like John Cornyn of Texas, have been busy propping up Senate campaigns in other states.

This election cycle, Graham has used his leadership political action committee, Fund for America’s Future, to spend around $161,000 to Republican candidates for the Senate, according to federal documents.

Because the Senate could be decided by a handful of races, Graham said he hoped to bolster GOP challengers and incumbents in close races.

“There’s a team element to politics,” Graham said. “A Senate vote in one state affects business everywhere.”

However, Woodard warned that increased political clout in Washington could have its downsides for Graham.

“There’s kind of a rising phenomenon now that the more visible you are in Washington, the greater the resentment is back home,” Woodard said.

Woodard said future primary challengers could portray Graham as an insider that is just another part of an institution that is highly unpopular among the American people.

“It is a problem for someone like Lindsey Graham because he does not have as high favorability back here,” Woodard said.

But for now, Graham just has to get past his vastly underfunded challenger, Democratic State Senator Brad Hutto of Orangeburg, on Tuesday.

Woodard said South Carolina’s senior senator will continue his national rise in prominence, even with some conservative discontent at home.

“Senators that have won reelection in their second term can assume a sort of guardianship of the country,” Woodard said. “We’ll see much more of that role from Lindsey.”