The latest round of protests against Sen. Lindsey Graham reached a fever pitch when he slammed Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster last Wednesday. Graham's criticism prompted a vocal group of conservatives inside and outside the Palmetto State to think the episode might finally be enough to bounce him from office.
But, the fact is Lindsey Graham will likely be re-elected in 2014 to a third term as the senior Senator from South Carolina.
Paul was holding up the nomination of John Brennan for CIA chief by protesting the Obama Administration’s policy on drones, a policy that Graham supports. The crux of Paul’s argument was based on the fear that Obama might have the power to use drones against American citizens on American soil. Attorney General Eric Holder told Paul that the President has no such authority, but Paul continued his filibuster anyway.
The issue here is not drones or whether Graham is right or wrong on any of the issues. It is the likelihood that this episode puts Graham’s re-election in doubt.
Critics to the right of Graham are not new. Tea Party types have been unhappy with him since word leaked in 2009 that he was working on climate change legislation with then-Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
Graham’s willingness to avoid a sequester or the fiscal cliff or other financial doom by closing tax loopholes and means-testing for Social Security, hasn’t served him well with some members of his own party.
But loudness of dissent does not equal a loss in a primary.
Last month, Winthrop University published a poll that showed Graham with an approval/disapproval rating of 71.6/17.4 among Republicans. Among all voters it was 58.4/41.6. Those poll numbers came out after the Club For Growth named Graham its top target in 2014.
Even if those numbers have moved a few points against Graham they are still extremely strong. Incumbents with that kind of favorability simply don’t lose elections. The only way they do is if there is scandal. And scandals can happen. Just ask Robert Menendez in New Jersey, who was thought to be close to invulnerable. But counting on a scandal to unseat an incumbent is not much of a strategy.
And one other fact to keep in mind: no South Carolina Senator who served a full term has lost a re-election campaign since Coleman Bease in 1930.
Being the incumbent is not a small advantage, chiefly when it comes to raising money, something that Graham is very good at. Before he’s even officially declared that he’ll seek re-election Graham has at least $4.4 million in his campaign coffers.
But numbers next to dollar signs aren’t the only kind of figures that make Graham’s re-election likely. Polling data on the Tea Party is also overwhelmingly in Graham’s favor.
Among Republicans and right-leaning independents in South Carolina, the Tea Party has a 48 percent favorability rating, according to the aforementioned Winthrop poll. Tea Party members are those most likely to vote against Graham in a primary. Even if all the people sympathetic to the Tea Party voted in a bloc—a dicey proposition—that still doesn’t get a challenger to Graham over 50 percent.
But, let’s say Graham’s Republican opponents somehow did cobble together a coalition to knock him off in a primary, the person they nominate would then go into a general election with a serious mountain to climb. Consider, that in that same Winthrop poll, the Tea Party has a favorability rating among all South Carolina voters of 26.5/37.9.
For the GOP to nominate a Tea Party candidate would put the seat in peril. The Democratic Party would immediately deem the seat as “in play” and a flood of money would come into the state.
Leading Republicans have made it abundantly clear they are tired of losing seats that are winnable. Yes, the Tea Party has yielded Rand Paul, Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, among others. But, those seats were reliably Republican anyway. Extreme right candidates like Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin cost the party seats that were held by a Democrat in Nevada, Delaware, Indiana and Missouri, respectively.
The idea of a Democrat winning a Senate seat in South Carolina would send shivers up the spine of the national GOP, which would result in donations by the bucket load to Graham. It’s one thing to lose a winnable seat. It’s quite another to give away a seat you’ve held for decades.
Does this mean Graham can put it an auto-pilot?
No. But the most frequently named challengers--state Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort or Lee Bright of Spartanburg—pose little threat.
Davis has almost no name recognition outside of the Lowcountry and Bright has very little outside of the Upstate. Furthermore, Davis told Patch he will serve out his term and not seek higher office. He could always change his mind.
Bright seems more certain to challenge Graham. Whether it’s him, Davis or some other member of the General Assembly, the barriers to victory will be substantial.
There are probably three people in the state of South Carolina who could beat Graham in a Republican primary—Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-4), Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-5) and former Gov. Mark Sanford, who is in the process of trying to win a House seat in District 1. The most likely of those to seriously consider a run against Graham is Mulvaney. To take on Graham would be a challenge to the status quo, something he has already shown a willingness to do. But it could make his House seat vulnerable. Prior to Mulvaney winning the District 5 seat in 2010, it was in Democratic hands for more than 125 years. Getting it back would not be an insurmountable task.
It's just another sign that points to a Graham victory in 2014 and in comfortable fashion.