Sen. Lindsey Graham is ready to run for reelection in 2020.
He’s championed a pet cause of the conservative base this week that’s crucial to winning big in South Carolina. But he’s also quietly reassured swing voters he hasn’t forgotten the value of working with Democrats.
First, he has to win a Republican primary, and during a speech that could become his campaign ad two years from now, the South Carolina Republican on Thursday delivered a scathing takedown of Democrats and full-throated defense of Brett Kavanaugh, the nominee to be a Supreme Court Justice accused of sexual assault.
By Friday morning, Graham had cemented himself as the most public face of the Republican Senate’s support for the embattled federal judge — a role that has endeared him so greatly to the conservatives he needs to fend off primary challengers.
But Graham knows how such love is fleeting: Conservatives could turn on him at any moment.
So despite his defense of Kavanaugh this week — a crusade that has become its own full-time job with back-to-back media appearances on the conservative news circuit — he insists he’s still the reach-across-the-aisle senator he’s always been.
“I’ve been applauded, and I’ve been a-booed,” Graham told reporters Friday with something of a rueful laugh. “I know my day will come. I’ll do something that this moment in time will pass. I’ll talk about climate change and overturning Citizens United. These things come and go,” he said. Citizens United refers to the landmark 2010 Supreme Court ruling that allowed corporations and unions to be directly involved in political messaging.
For Graham, leaning back to the middle could be politically perilous.
Every six years, he finds himself at risk of being ousted in a Republican primary election by someone claiming to be farther to the right.
And every time, Graham is able to survive. In 2014, Graham won his Republican primary with 56 percent. His chances of holding on, however, become more and more tenuous with each gesture he makes towards Democrats — particularly when it comes to immigration.
David Woodard, a veteran GOP strategist who ran Graham’s first U.S. House race in the 1990s, said that after Graham voted for Democratic Supreme Court nominees Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, Republican voters in South Carolina “were about ready to shoot him down here.”
Voters are unlikely to shoot him down for his court views this time. During his fiery speech on Thursday, Graham accused Democrats of playing politics with the Kavanaugh nomination.
“Boy, do you want power,” he yelled, his voice shaking. “God, I hope you never get it.”
Graham’s take-down of colleagues on the other side of the aisle might have been an encouraging sign to many GOP voters who want a true, partisan hardliner representing them in Washington.
The senator’s alignment with President Donald Trump also helps. While his defense of Kavanaugh is perhaps the most high-profile example of this alliance, Graham has been warming up to Trump for the past year and a half.
Political observers have speculated that Graham is using Trump now to shore up support among the conservative base back home, where the president’s approval ratings remain high. With each ingratiating Graham tweet directed at Trump, South Carolina Republican voters nod in agreement.
But others have characterized this embrace of Trump as Graham having “sold his soul” — after all, this was the same senator who didn’t vote for Trump and called the then-presidential candidate unfit for office.
Critics also say Graham is now morally rudderless without the guiding hand of his best friend and resident Senate maverick John McCain, the Arizona Republican senator who died of brain cancer in August.
Speaking with a small group of reporters on Capitol Hill on Friday, Graham said McCain’s rage over the Kavanaugh confirmation process would have been so great, “He would have made me look like a choir boy.”
Graham also suggested it was McCain who guided him towards becoming the politician he is today, who picks and chooses his battles and does what it takes to score the legislative victories he seeks.
“I was hot as a fire, and then I met John. And John said ... ‘Use it. You got capital, use it,’” Graham said of McCain’s advice. “I wanted to use whatever capital I had to do things and I will do that. I’m going to go back to immigration. I really would like to do something about campaign finance reform. I really would like to do something about sentencing reform.
“And I want to do some things that are more traditionally conservative,” Graham said. “I would like to take on the social media companies, talk about privacy. Should they be treated like TV stations and newspapers? Talk about how you protect content.”
In other words, Graham could find himself in a position to pursue some of the politically riskier issues that matter to him if he’s earned good will with Republicans leaders in Congress and the White House.
Still, Graham’s return to a more measured, inclusive style of legislating could return him to shaky ground with conservative voters. It could also make it harder for Democrats to rally their own base around a strong candidate to run against him in two years, without Grahama’s pro-Kavanaugh speech fresh in voters’ minds.
No Democrat has been elected to the U.S. Senate from South Carolina since 1998.
Jaime Harrison, former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman and an associate chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told McClatchy that Thursday’s hearing was a turning point for Democrats, himself included: After watching Graham’s speech, Harrison said he was now considering a 2020 Senate bid.
On the evening of Graham’s committee speech, the state Democratic Party put out an email asking for contributions to defeat the incumbent senator in two years, an unprecedented request given the midterm elections just weeks away.
“The color and the language and the callousness that came with how Lindsey defined the women, how he defined their assertions, was disrespectful,” explained Harrison, who referred to Graham’s speech as “theatrics.”
Reflecting on his Thursday remarks, Graham conceded he had let himself get “emotional,” which he described as “a dangerous thing to do in politics.”
But he said he just couldn’t help himself.
“I got pissed.”