Rumors of Lindsey Graham’s political demise have been, to paraphrase Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated.
The esteemed political scientist Larry Sabato last week said Graham is perhaps the Republican U.S. senator most ripe for a primary upset. That’s not the first time someone’s said that. Hard-core conservatives — egged on by talk show hosts — have hated Graham for years. They claim he’s not conservative, he talks to Democrats, he — gasp — supports amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Now Nancy Mace is making the rounds with conservative media, and folks see shades of Nikki Haley.
Sorry, but this isn’t 2010. And Graham is not as unpopular as these people think.
“There’s always a lot of people talking about kicking him out of office,” says Neal Thigpen, a veteran South Carolina political scientist. “I still put my money on him.”
In 2008, everybody said Graham was in trouble.
Yes, that was before the tea party — the group credited with upending the state’s good ol’ boy system and electing Haley governor. But the tea party isn’t what it used to be.
In May, a coalition of conservatives tried to hijack the state’s GOP convention. They wanted a chairman who would boot Graham from the party, abolish primaries and let delegates choose party nominees.
They failed miserably. That’s because, as establishment Republicans like to say, these Liberty Caucus and tea party types are a very vocal minority — with an emphasis on minority. They are unreasonable and enjoy getting their hate on against anyone who disagrees on even the smallest point.
“If that’s all Lindsey Graham has to worry about, he’ll skate,” says Chad Connelly, a former state GOP chairman.
Need proof? Last week, a statewide agri-business group commissioned a poll to gauge the state’s political landscape. In a poll of 400 likely Republican primary voters, Graham had a 62 percent approval rating; 55 percent said they would vote to re-elect him no matter who else ran.
The more interesting question, though, asked voters if they’d rather have someone who stuck to party principles or was willing to work across the aisle. More than 77 percent said they want someone who can play well with others.
These are folks who probably remember when politicians could have philosophical differences but still manage to occasionally do something.
And Graham is old school.
In the 2014 U.S. senate race, Mace is not likely to have the same perfect storm of luck that Haley did in her gubernatorial bid.
Haley faced no incumbent, and her challengers were an old-time establishment candidate, a congressman who had raised the ire of the tea party and Lt. Gov. Speed Racer.
Thanks to the Sanfords, Haley started with a decent war chest. And thanks to some nice donor, Haley got an endorsement from Sarah Palin when it meant something.
Mace is definitely flavor-of-the-week. But in the coming days she will be quizzed about her connection to the website that made all those nasty claims about Haley in 2010.
It also didn’t help that her campaign put out a nasty tweet about Graham last week. That sort of innuendo didn’t work when Democratic guru Dick Harpootlian tried it, and it won’t work now.
Graham is one of the most high-profile politicians in Washington, and he’s no pushover. He says what he thinks, and has not been afraid to face down critics from his own party.
Of course, Graham is not invincible. And nutty things happen in South Carolina politics. See Greene, Alvin.
But there is this, too: Graham has broad appeal — which means that unless the Democrats come up with two good candidates for a race (and they can rarely recruit one), a lot of them will cross over and vote with reasonable Republicans for Graham.
And that explains why the tea party tried to change GOP nominating rules in May.
Their best chance to get rid of Graham was by taking the voters out of the equation.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org