How Lindsey Graham Lost His Way - Rolling Stone
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How Lindsey Graham Lost His Way

The senator once enjoyed respect on both sides of the aisle. Why has he become a blind loyalist to Trump?

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Illustration by Victor Juhasz for Rolling Stone

Lindsey Graham and Donald Trump were born nine years and one month apart. Trump came first, but when they appear side by side, as they often do these days, the men look about the same age. On November 6th, in the East Room of the White House, the president held an event to mark the record number of federal judges his administration has appointed, and Graham was there, having played a critical role in the achievement as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Trump’s staff had scheduled the event in part to shift focus from the House impeachment investigation, to remind any wobbly Republicans of the reason they’d held their noses and voted for the guy in the first place.

Over the course of his three terms representing South Carolina in the Senate, Graham had become predominantly known for two things: extreme hawkishness on foreign policy, following the lead of his close friend and mentor, the late Arizona Sen. John McCain, and a bipartisan streak that resulted in high-profile attempts to cut big deals on issues like immigration reform and climate change. A former senior staffer for a Democratic senator who has worked alongside Graham on bipartisan legislation tells me, “Like John McCain, he was a conservative Republican, but it was always worth asking where he was going to be on a particular issue, because he wasn’t completely beholden to party orthodoxy. He’d often be way out ahead of his staff, negotiating on the Senate floor unbeknownst to them, and they would be playing catch-up.”

Will Folks, a conservative political blogger in South Carolina, says, “The joke here is Graham has a ‘count to six’ approach to governing: He spends the first four years of his term doing whatever he wants, veering off toward the left, and then the last two years, when the electorate is paying more attention, he comes right.”

Graham is “never flustered, and just a natural at dealing with people who don’t like him,” says David Woodard, a political-science professor at Clemson University who ran Graham’s first two campaigns for the House of Representatives and recalls the first-term congressman as quickly becoming the unofficial social director for his freshman class, though he added, “You’re going to find Lindsey knows a lot of people, but he’s not close to anybody.”

Like much of the GOP establishment, Graham had opposed Trump during the 2015 primary, but he spoke out more forcefully than most, and in the general election, he wrote in third-party candidate Evan McMullin. Which has made his subsequent capitulation all the more breathtaking, even in the context of a modern Republican Party completely transformed into the party of Trump. In the past few months alone, in advance of a likely Senate impeachment trial, Graham has doubled down on the president’s inflammatory characterization of the House inquiry, calling it a “lynching in every sense”; preemptively announced he wouldn’t be reading any of the transcripts of deposed House witnesses, though he’ll be a juror in the trial, telling reporters he’d “written the whole process off . . . this is a bunch of B.S.”; and most recently, requested documents for a Judiciary Committee investigation into the entirely baseless claims that Trump’s leading 2020 rival, Joe Biden, pressured the government of Ukraine to fire its lead prosecutor in an effort to help his son Hunter.

Shortly after Graham’s office requested documents pertaining to the Biden investigation, a 2016 video surfaced in which Graham paid heartfelt tribute to the former vice president, calling him “as good a man as God ever created” and saying, “If you can’t admire Joe Biden as a person . . . you need to do some self-evaluation.” It felt like a taped confession to a future crime, as if the old Graham, the Graham who knew better, had put his soul in a time capsule in order to shame his craven Trump-era self. Here was video evidence of Graham’s willingness to protect a man he knows to be corrupt by falsely accusing a friend of corruption. By that point, though, Graham’s debasement had been so thoroughly realized, the hypocrisy on display barely made an impact.

Graham had first come to national prominence 20 years earlier, during the Senate impeachment trial of Bill Clinton. Graham had still been a member of the House of Representatives then, elected during the so-called Republican Revolution of 1994, the Newt Gingrich-led conservative backlash to Clinton. Graham, a former trial lawyer, became one of the House managers during Clinton’s Senate trial — essentially, a prosecutor tasked with making the case to the Senators as to why the president should be removed from office. A boyish 43-year-old in an ill-fitting suit, he deployed his mellifluous Southern accent as cannily as the man whose election he was trying to undo. “What’s a high crime?” he asked the chamber. “How about if an important person hurts somebody of low means? It’s not very scholarly, but I think it’s the truth. . . .  It dudn’t even have to be a crime!” Deploying that “dudn’t,” especially, was pure Clinton, and watching the old clip now, Graham looks like he’s auditioning for a regional theater production of Matlock.

At the East Room event, Trump summoned Graham to the podium. The years had accentuated Graham’s jowls and moistened his pale-blue eyes. Al Franken used to describe Graham as the second-funniest member of the Senate, and in his brief remarks, Graham leavened the embarrassing obsequiousness Trump demands of his subordinates. Referring to his own disastrous 2016 presidential run, Graham began, “After I got beat like a dog — which he likes hearing — he called me over to the White House and said, ‘I’d like you to help me.’

“I said, ‘I’d love to help you be a great president, because you’re now my president.’

“He said, ‘I don’t have your phone number.’

“I said, ‘There’s a reason for that.’ ”

The crowd chuckled. Graham was referring to the moment during the Republican primary when Trump made a speech calling Graham an idiot — said he wasn’t even as smart as Rick Perry — and then gave out his cellphone number, advising his supporters to “try it.”

“The highlight of my campaign was when you gave out my phone number,” Graham continued dryly, to more laughs from the room and a beaming nod from Trump. “If I did as well as my phone number, it probably would have been a different story.”

Of course, the joke curdles a bit when you recall the context of the doxxing: Graham had provoked Trump’s wrath by having the temerity to defend McCain, whom Trump had just mocked for being captured during Vietnam. Trump was a “jackass,” Graham said at the time, predicting “the beginning of the end” for his campaign.

Four years later, at the White House event, Graham concluded his remarks with a different prediction for Trump: “When you run and you get re-elected a year from now, one of the main reasons is that people in the conservative world believe that you fight for judges. God bless you.”

Steve Schmidt, who ran McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, where Graham was a constant presence on the trail, tells me, “We see more examples of this in film and literature, but there are instances of principled men and women laying down their careers in service of what is right. Clearly, that person will never be Lindsey Graham. With regard to the cruelty and abuse that was directed at John McCain by Trump, I think Lindsey’s flaccidity in defending him says a lot about his character. Nobody wants to be in a bar fight when they go out on Friday night. But when someone walks up and punches your best friend in the face, you’ve got to do something. Lindsey has demonstrated he’s the guy who runs out the door.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and President Donald Trump at a White House event on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019, in Washington to celebrate federal judicial confirmations. President Trump was leaving after this event, for a campaign event in Louisiana. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

FOLLOW THE LEADER: Graham’s popularity was tanking back home until his dramatic, angry defense Trump’s Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh. Graham’s poll numbers jumped 21 points. “Lindsey, in my opinion, has sold his mother to keep his job,” says Graham’s former law partner. Photo credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times

Doug Mills/The New York Times/Redux

Graham’s former law partner in South Carolina, Larry Brandt, spoke with comparable bluntness when I visit him at his office in Walhalla, a sleepy town near Clemson. Graham clerked for Brandt while attending law school at the University of South Carolina. Brandt had served in Vietnam as an Air Force JAG — he’s the type of Vietnam vet who will still, if Jane Fonda’s name comes up, feel compelled to add “that bitch” — and the pair immediately hit it off. Graham had enlisted in the Air Force ROTC program when he started college and went on to serve as a JAG lawyer himself after graduation. In 1989, after leaving the service, Graham joined Brandt’s firm, and they remain friends. “Lindsey always told me he wanted to be a politician,” Brandt says, describing his former protégé as a tremendous trial lawyer. “Lindsey comes from common people, and being the plaintiff’s lawyer, he was for the little guy.”

Brandt has voted for Republicans and Democrats, but he loathes Donald Trump, “that 4-F sonofabitch.” Nodding toward the window of the conference room where we’re sitting, he says, “My flag’s at half mast, and it ain’t going up until Trump’s gone.” Over the years, Brandt says he’s always stuck up for Graham back home, where his willingness to compromise has often left him unpopular with constituents, viewed with suspicion as a RINO (Republican in Name Only). But Brandt’s been dismayed by Graham’s shifting stance on the president. “He’s laughed with me and said Trump’s just like a little boy,” Brandt says. “He will agree with me when I say shit about Trump, when it’s me and him in here.” They last spoke over the summer, when Graham called to see if Brandt wanted to get dinner. Brandt was vacationing in Texas, but he told Graham, “I want to talk to you about some things, and I’m gonna tell you now, I’m not with you on a bunch of your issues.” They made plans to meet when Graham was back in August, but Brandt never heard from him.

One day, before Trump was elected, Graham visited Brandt at his office. “We were talking about politics, and he looked at me and said, ‘Larry, you’re too honest to be in politics,’ ” Brandt recalls. “He said, ‘Eighty-five percent of the people in Washington, elected officials and bureaucrats, would sell their mothers to keep their jobs.’ That’s a direct quote.” Two Christmases ago, Brandt ran into Graham at a restaurant in Seneca and reminded him of what he’d said. “He, of course, made a joke out of it,” Brandt says. “But Lindsey, in my opinion, has sold his mother to keep his job.”

The building where Graham grew up still stands at 217 Main St. in Central, South Carolina, a flyspeck of a town in the northwest corner of the state. I say “building” and not “house” because it’s not a house, but the last in a row of low brick storefronts, mostly empty today, running alongside a set of train tracks. Central got its name because of its location on the rail line, halfway between Atlanta and Charlotte. Graham’s father, F.J., owned a bar called the Sanitary Cafe. The family lived in back, crowded into a single room, using the same restroom as the customers and a metal wash basin, with water heated on the stove, for bathing. Woodard, Graham’s former campaign consultant, who also worked on races for Trey Gowdy and Jim DeMint, tells me that when Graham’s relatives stopped by campaign headquarters, “It was like, have you seen the movie Deliverance?”

Graham helped run the family liquor store (the Sanitary Cafe having been sold) after both of his parents died in quick succession while he was still in college in the 1970s. One of the more revealing passages in Graham’s anodyne 2015 campaign autobiography, My Story, comes when he discovers his aptitude for trials in law school. “Conducting a trial,” he writes, “is like staging a play, and you’re the writer, director, and principal actor. I was born to do it.” Graham loved “injecting a little drama into the simplest things” — when introducing evidence, for example, he would rummage through his files before retrieving the correct page with a flourish, “in a voice that suggests an important discovery.” Filtered through this lens, Graham’s talent for sophistry in the defense of Trump makes a kind of sense, purely on the level of craft. Politics, like commanding attention in a courtroom, is performance. (Graham declined to be interviewed for this story.)

There’s little disagreement about what has been Graham’s pivotal performance of the Trump era: the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, when Graham startled spectators with an uncharacteristic, snarling eruption at his Democratic colleagues (complete with the sort of dramatic business described by Graham in his book, including literal finger-wagging and a climactic shuffling of papers). “I will tell you none of that was scripted, nor did any of his staff know it was coming,” a former senior member of Graham’s Senate staff insists. “He’s always had the view that as long as a Supreme Court nominee was qualified, the president gets his pick. He voted for Kagan and Sotomayor under Obama, which wasn’t easy. And I think he looked at how the Democrats handled the Kavanaugh nomination and was deeply furious.”

A lawmaker who knows Graham well watched the hearing with a more jaundiced eye. “To me, that was very, very ginned up,” the ex-member said. “I watched that and went, ‘Jesus Christ, come on!’ It was theatrics. The right response would have been sarcastic clapping. Really, when he finished, someone should have gone, ‘Nice speech, Lindsey!’ ”

Sincere or not, the moment had its desired effect. Trump loved the show, and Graham received credit for turning the tide of the hearing in Republicans’ favor. More important, GOP voters in South Carolina, along with potential primary rivals — Graham is up for re-election in 2020 — took notice. Will Folks, the political blogger in South Carolina, describes Graham’s Kavanaugh defense as both “all playacting” and “the crowning moment of his latest ideological reorientation.” Prior to the hearing, Folks tells me, “not only do I think Graham would have had a serious primary challenger, but he would have lost. I wrote an article in 2017 called ‘Dead Senator Walking.’ The polling was that bad. They would not piss on him if he was on fire, as the expression goes down here. There was a visceral hatred for the man.”

John Warren, a Greenville businessman and Iraq War veteran, had been publicly talking about challenging Graham in 2020, telling Eric Bolling of the Blaze last year that South Carolina was “a great conservative state, and we deserve two conservative senators.” But with Graham’s popularity and fundraising prowess surging post-Kavanaugh defense — his poll numbers in South Carolina jumped 21 points after the hearing, from 51 percent in April 2018 to 72 percent in October 2018 — Warren quietly announced this fall that he wouldn’t be running for any office in 2020. And Graham understood, more than ever, what his political survival depended upon. Though he ultimately answered to the voters back home, he served at the pleasure of the president.

After Graham’s parents died, his sister, Darline, only 13 at the time, went to live with an aunt and uncle, but Graham became her guardian, coming home from college most weekends and eventually legally adopting her. As an Air Force lawyer in the 1980s, Graham defended clients who were going to be discharged after testing positive for marijuana by putting the sloppy lab protocol on trial, Barry Scheck-style, eventually making his national television debut when he was interviewed for a Diane Sawyer-anchored 60 Minutes segment on the cases. He’d never been “political,” he writes in My Story, until the election of Ronald Reagan, and being stationed in Germany during the final years of the Cold War cemented his hawkish foreign-policy views. Back in South Carolina, he won a state House of Representatives seat in 1992, and in 1994, riding a wave of conservative anger at Bill Clinton, he became the first Republican to represent South Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District since before Reconstruction. “I’d like to think I was a genius, but I was just in the right place at the right time,” says Woodard, Graham’s campaign manager. “The main difference between Lindsey and his Democratic opponent was Lindsey had an ‘R’ next to his name, and people who couldn’t stand Clinton wanted to send a message.”

As a freshman member of Congress, Graham quickly cooled on Newt Gingrich. The frustrated group of Republicans who launched an unsuccessful coup against Gingrich in 1997 met in Graham’s office to plot. (Gingrich resigned as speaker the following year.) “Lindsey is a good barometer,” says Woodard. “He figured out his first week in office that Gingrich had a short shelf life. He was willing to say things against him as a freshman congressman! He’s not an intellectual or an ideologue, he’s not going to write a book on the conservative mantle. But he will have a sense of when the tide is changing before anyone else in the room. He can read people — voters, but also colleagues — better than almost anyone I’ve seen.”

One of the first examples of a particular genre of Graham profile, all painting him as a folksy voice of reason in an increasingly hardline GOP, appeared in The Washington Post in 1998. Headlined “Lindsey Graham, a Twang of Moderation,” the piece portrayed him as a droll, highly quotable country lawyer whose views on impeachment “are surprisingly compatible with President Clinton’s.” On the House floor, Graham had said that if the Clinton impeachment ended up being “about an extramarital affair with an intern, and that’s it, I will not vote to impeach this president no matter if 82 percent of the people back home want me to, because we will destroy this country.”

Substantively, though, the Graham of the Nineties was a fairly doctrinaire conservative, and in the end, he did vote to impeach Clinton. But his skill at being all things to all people, and his budding love of the media spotlight, was on full display in the Post story. When I speak with Bill McCollum, a former Republican House member from Florida who served alongside Graham as an impeachment manager, he praises the “quick mind” and “gentlemanly” manner of his colleague, but adds, “Even though I thought he was generally right, I would be remiss in not telling you people thought he could be too aggressive, out grabbing the mic.”

The Post article also described Graham’s Air Force tour as “terrific fun for a young bachelor swinging his way through Paris and Rome.” Graham himself, jokingly declining to discuss his “exploits,” added, “I was very heterosexual, that’s all you need to know.” Graham’s lifelong bachelorhood has been a subject of unsubstantiated speculation, and homophobic baiting, for years. During the Clinton impeachment, anonymous callers left messages at his office threatening to out him. On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart did an impression of Graham as a mincing Scarlett O’Hara. In 2002, when Graham decided to run for Senate — the arch segregationist Strom Thurmond finally announced his retirement at age 99 — Dick Harpootlian, the chair of the state Democratic Party, said Graham was a little too “light in the loafers” to fill Thurmond’s shoes. “I know it’s really gonna upset a lot of gay men . . . but I ain’t available. I ain’t gay. Sorry,” Graham told The New York Times Magazine in 2010.

The rumors are only relevant insofar as Graham’s record on gay rights, which, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ civil-rights organization, has been largely atrocious. The group describes Graham as “a consistent opponent of everything from marriage equality to protecting LGBTQ workers from employment discrimination” (though in 2015, he called for the GOP to drop its demand for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a woman and a man).

Woodard points out that Thurmond had an illegitimate black daughter he’d kept secret until his death. “There’s always this feeling that what you see in a South Carolina politician is not what you get, that there’s something in the closet,” he says. But Woodard doesn’t believe Graham is gay. “I kept his daily schedule, and if I wasn’t with him, I knew who was,” Woodard says. “In 1994, in fact, we had all these women after him. They’d hold these fundraisers and invite him over. Lindsey would tell me later, ‘It was a trap, Dave! Don’t ever send me back over there.’ But I never suspected he was anything other than an affable bachelor.”

As a senator, Graham quickly allied himself with McCain, whom he’d supported over George W. Bush in the ugly South Carolina Republican primary in 2000. “His foreign policy and immigration positions were soon indistinguishable from those of his mentor,” according to The New York Times, which effectively meant there wasn’t a war Graham didn’t support, but also that he would become a member of the Gang of Eight, a bipartisan group of senators that passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013, only to see it killed by conservatives in the House. The former Democratic staffer tells me, “He got the immigration issue, and it was clearly for the right reasons. There wasn’t a great deal of political upside in South Carolina for him to go whole hog on it.”

During the Obama years, in fact, Graham found himself assailed by conservatives as he became one of the only Republicans willing to work with the administration. An article in Politico called Graham and Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, “D.C.’s odd couple,” noting that, by 2010, Graham had “had more in-person meetings with Emanuel than any other Republican.” The former Graham staffer told me that if an issue was big and complicated and seemed unsolvable, Graham was drawn to it. “He liked to try to put the puzzle together in a way that would bring Republicans and Democrats together, which often meant swallowing policies that weren’t his preference, as long as he believed he got something in return.”

Part of Graham’s skill at consensus building came down to his personal charm. “Everyone likes having him around,” Schmidt acknowledges. “He’s a genuinely funny guy.” After Trump’s election, according to Bob Woodward’s Fear, then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus urged Graham to broach a rapport with the new president, telling him, “You’re a lot of fun. He needs fun people around him.” In Woodward’s account of their first Oval Office meeting, in March 2017, an anecdote for which Graham seems the likely source, the senator entered with a prepared speech. Trump jumped up to hug him, declaring, “We’ve got to be friends.” Graham said he wanted that, and told Trump, “I want to apologize to you for a very fucked-up Republican majority. Congress is going to fuck up your presidency. We have no idea what we’re doing. We have no plan for health care. We’re on different planets when it comes to cutting taxes. And you’re the biggest loser in this.” And then the silver-tongued country lawyer appealed to Trump’s ego, telling him, “You’re a dealmaker. These leaders in Congress don’t know how to do something as simple as buying a house. . . .  There are not five people on Capitol Hill I’d let buy me a car. I’d let you buy me a car.”

John McCain, Lindsey Graham. Sen John McCain, R-Ariz., left, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, walks with Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, as they arrive for votes at the Capitol in WashingtonCongress Budget, Washington, USA - 19 Oct 2017

STAND BY YOUR MAN: “Lindsey has a real draw to power,” says John McCain’s former campaign director Steve Schmidt, “but he’s found it unattainable on his own merits.” McCain, who was a sharp critic of Trump, had been Graham’s mentor and closet ally in the Senate. Photo credit: AP/Shutterstock


Perhaps early on, Graham thought he could work Trump with flattery. The new president must have certainly made a tempting target for anyone skilled at manipulation. If you could stomach sucking up to the guy, ignore all but the very worst of his racism, bullying, and vulgarity, and then whisper your own policy preferences in his ear, details of which he would have zero interest in, other than how they might represent a “win” for him — well, maybe his cult of personality could be used to advance sensible conservative goals. That would be the charitable reading of what I’ll call the Paul Ryan Approach, an approach Graham, who’d never stopped hammering Trump during the campaign, quickly adopted. In the Woodward book, Steve Bannon describes Graham as “the best salesman around,” saying that Trump “loves Graham. Graham can sell him anything.” (Graham also told Bannon “that America First is bullshit. This is all bullshit.”)

The big test of Graham’s salesmanship came on immigration, the issue that Trump has so successfully demagogued upon. Graham was trying to help broker a new deal, one in which Trump would agree to extend the Dream Act, the program protecting undocumented immigrants who’d been brought to the United States as children, in exchange for more money on border security from Democrats. Then came the infamous meeting in which Trump referred to poor, non-white countries as “shitholes.” “Senator Graham was incensed,” the Democratic Senate staffer tells me. “He said directly to the president, ‘My forefathers came from a shithole country, too, and look at me now.’ ”

As Ryan also quickly learned, hopes that Trump might begin to curb his worse impulses proved fanciful. “Anybody who thinks he’s going to have a moderating influence on Trump pretty much always ends up going, ‘Well, that idea didn’t work,’ ” says Al Franken, who served alongside Graham on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “For Lindsey, ‘I can see every angle, and I have influence with Trump so he doesn’t go off the deep end’ is a good talking point. But I don’t think it’s shown any benefits.”

With his House majority doomed, Ryan announced his retirement. Graham, though, persisted, to the bewilderment of even those who’d worked closely with him. “When Senator Graham really began courting the president — golfing all the time with him, saying flattering things on cable news — it felt like he wanted to be the attorney general, or there was some other play there,” the Democratic Senate staffer says. “Initially we thought, ‘Well, if he ingratiates himself to the president, it helps us on immigration.’ Then there was a turn. He got much Trumpier. He became a blind defender of the president’s policies, no matter what, his fingers in his ears, ‘I’m not interested in the facts, just here to support the president.’ Which is where he is today. I’m sure I’m not alone wondering what Senator McCain would think.”

When I ask Schmidt, McCain’s former senior campaign adviser, about the “moderating influence on Trump” defense of Graham’s behavior, he snorts. “It’s ludicrous,” he says, “but despite its ludicrousness, this will be one of the fundamental arguments in American politics for the next 25 years. ‘No, no, you don’t understand: I was secretly against him while he was debasing his office, dividing the American people, engaged in all manner of abuses of power. I was on the front lines of Mar-a-Lago preventing this!’ It’s an absurdity. For most Republicans, the simple fact is, what they now claim to believe is at odds with what they claimed to believe three years ago. Look at what Lindsey said in 2015 and what he says today. What intervening event occurred that would lend oneself to have such a strong turn?”

A senior staffer at a nonprofit Washington-based advocacy group who has worked with Graham for more than a decade tells me, “Graham is the most nervous primary politician I’ve ever seen. Even if he doesn’t have a credible challenger on the right, he goes into overdrive, and I mean overdrive.” As 2020 approached, Graham was certainly paying attention to his right-leaning primary electorate back home. South Carolina is an aging state, popular with retirees — the fastest-growing age demographic is residents 85 or older. “Ten years from now, I think South Carolina is going to be the most conservative state in the country,” the staffer predicted.

Franken sees Graham’s rightward tack as evidence of a fundamental cynicism. Once, shortly before the Christmas recess, Graham bumped into Franken in the hallway and asked if he planned on taking his family somewhere warm. Franken said yes, in fact, they’d be vacationing in Puerto Rico. Without missing a beat, Graham said, “Do two fundraisers while you’re there: one for the pro-statehood people and one for the anti-statehood people. They never talk to each other!”

“He was loaded for that,” Franken says. “He jokes about being cynical with his colleagues — that’s a big part of his humor — but I think that actually reflects a reality. He does what he has to do.”

In October, Graham’s re-election campaign announced he’d broken fundraising records for the third quarter of 2019 with a staggering $3.3 million haul, more than any other Republican Senate candidate raised during the same period and the most any candidate in South Carolina had ever raised in a three-month period ($1.2 million came from small donors, who in GOP fundraising circles tend to be Trump supporters, and 87 percent of the money came from out of state).

His likely general-election opponent next year, Jaime Harrison, is a charismatic former chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party. I met Harrison as he was making a campaign appearance in Rock Hill, handing out meals at a mobile food bank. Graham, Harrison tells me, “has not had a town hall in South Carolina in well over two years. But you can find him on Fox News or golfing with the president every other day. That’s not helping the people here.” Pointing to a Graham quote about wanting to be “relevant,” Harrison says, “Relevance for him is that news reporters gaggle around him when he’s walking down the corridors; it’s going on Sean Hannity or flying on Air Force One. Relevance for the people of South Carolina is none of that.”

Most of the local political observers I spoke with expressed skepticism that Harrison, who is black, can replicate the base-energizing strategy of Stacey Abrams in Georgia and come as close to winning in a state as conservative as South Carolina. Still, Harrison has broken fundraising records for any Democratic Senate candidate in the state, raising $2.2 million in the third quarter. Their race will likely be the most expensive Senate campaign in state history.

Gibbs Knotts, a professor of political science at the College of Charleston, considers Harrison a long shot, but adds, “What I would say is, look at South Carolina’s 1st District. Trump won that by 13 percentage points, and then you had a guy like Joe Cunningham,” the Democrat who won an upset victory for a vacant House seat in 2018. “A lot of folks in South Carolina look at Cunningham and wonder, ‘Is that the magic formula?’ ” Knotts went on. “It’s an upscale Charleston suburb. If there’s a Democratic candidate who can do well in those kinds of suburbs, along with urban areas and rural parts of the state that are heavily African American, that’s a coalition that could work against Lindsey Graham.”

But probably not next year. It’s ironic that Graham has adopted Trump’s strategy of appealing to the base and only the base, and it will likely ensure that the onetime highly endangered RINO will coast to reelection, whereas the same strategy could doom the deeply unpopular Trump nationwide. Meanwhile, impeachment looms, with the action turning to the Senate. During an impeachment trial, senators, acting as jurors, must sit in silence as House managers and the president’s lawyers argue the case. But Graham, as one of Trump’s most tireless apologists, will certainly play a role on the defense team, spinning for gaggles of reporters inside the Senate and running interference with his own Judiciary investigation into the Bidens. “After McCain’s passing, I got the sense that Graham was isolated within his own caucus, and that having allies at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue behooved him,” the Democratic Senate staffer says. Now Graham has emerged, unlikely as it would have seemed just a few years ago, as one of the most powerful voices in his party.

“People try to analyze Lindsey through the prism of the manifest inconsistencies that exist between things that he used to believe and what he’s doing now,” Schmidt says. “The way to understand him is to look at what’s consistent. And essentially what he is in American politics is what, in the aquatic world, would be a pilot fish: a smaller fish that hovers about a larger predator, like a shark, living off of its detritus. That’s Lindsey. And when he swam around the McCain shark, broadly viewed as a virtuous and good shark, Lindsey took on the patina of virtue. But wherever the apex shark is, you find the Lindsey fish hovering about, and Trump’s the newest shark in the sea. Lindsey has a real draw to power — but he’s found it unattainable on his own merits.”

Speaking to CBS’ John Dickerson after McCain’s death, Graham recalled one of the final afternoons he spent with his friend at his Arizona ranch. They watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a classic Western in which Jimmy Stewart plays a U.S. senator who is elected after he’s given credit for gunning down the titular villain — though in fact (spoiler!) John Wayne’s character actually did it. The movie is where the line “When legend becomes fact, print the legend” comes from. When Dickerson pushed Graham about his cozying up to McCain’s nemesis in the White House, Graham attempted to burnish his own legend, making his willingness to bend the knee sound patriotic. “I don’t have the luxury of playing like he’s not president,” he said. “I’m not going to give up on the idea of working with this president.”

It sounded good, but which, exactly, of the urgent issues of the day was Trump “working with” the senior senator from South Carolina on? Not immigration, nor climate change. (The old Graham fought hard with John Kerry and Joe Lieberman to try to pass a bipartisan cap-and-trade bill.) And certainly few of Trump’s actions in the realm of foreign policy — most recently, Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds in Syria — would have reassured the hawkish neocon. Wasn’t it actually more of a luxury to “work” with the president, which in effect means kowtowing to the president, and still remain in your cozy position in the Senate, rather than risk being the character in the movie who takes a shot at the bad guy and misses?

When I ask Woodard what motivates Graham to stay in politics after all these years, he says, “I’ve thought about that,” and pauses before continuing. “He’s alone. It’s not like he has a family, a child. His time, when he’s away from the spotlight, I think is a lonely time. He’s more comfortable in the spotlight where he’s Senator Lindsey Graham, talking about things he knows a lot about. I thought he wouldn’t run in 2020. And then he did the Kavanaugh thing, and he’s the Trump buddy. If Trump wins a second term, he might wind up in the Cabinet, maybe Secretary of Defense? The South, and South Carolina in particular, has a history of sending ’em back. He’s got Thurmond’s seat, and Thurmond had that seat until he was 100. So he could have a long way to go.”


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