By Hastings Wyman –
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is running for president. He and a bunch of others who don’t stand a chance. He was not quite in the Carly Fiorina or Ben Carson category, but only a notch or so ahead of them. He’s a hawk in an era of growing isolationism. His party’s base – the Tea Partiers and the evangelicals – have long suspected he’s not one of them. The most that could be said for him was that he was in the race to make a persuasive case for a strong defense and an aggressive, if you will, foreign policy, a case that might otherwise get lost in the house polls and focus groups of the major candidates.
But last week, Graham released his finance committees. He has assembled one of the most powerful money-raising teams in this or previous presidential campaigns. On the national level, it’s co-chaired by Safra Catz, CEO of Oracle, and includes a healthy dose of billionaires. The list includes a number of wealthy supporters of Israel, alarmed by what they see as the US withdrawal from the Middle East. The list includes Lenny Adelson, brother of Sheldon Adelson, who helped bankroll Newt Gingrich’s 2012 White House bid; Jeff Immelt, CEO and chairman of General Electric; and billionaires Ronald Perelman and Anita Zucker.
In South Carolina, Graham’s finance effort is headed by David Wilkins, who served as speaker of the state’s House of Representatives and later as ambassador to Canada. The state financial committee includes just about everybody who’s anybody in South Carolina’s business and professional community.
Chip Felkel, a Greenville-based political consultant (R), says that Graham “has put together one helluva list… [But] can this translate into votes? Right now, he’s not registering in the polls. They’ve got to win, place or show in Iowa and New Hampshire to turn into votes in South Carolina, to convince South Carolina that he can go somewhere afterwards.” Graham, however, is close to US Sen. Joni Ernst (R) in Iowa and US Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) in New Hampshire, which could help him run well in those two early contests. In addition, former US Rep. John Napier (R-SC), a Graham supporter, notes that Graham “is looking to consolidate the remnants of a national McCain organization, where he has deep roots.”
In any case, Graham’s strength in South Carolina is not a given. He’s run third or fourth among Republicans in recent presidential polls in the state. Moreover, the GOP’s hardcore base has always been tentative about their support for Graham. He mostly votes conservative on issues important to social conservatives, but does not retreat from his belief in pragmatic negotiating, even on such hot-button issues as immigration and climate change. He also voted to confirm some of President Obama’s nominees, including Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Three rightwing challengers opposed him in the 2014 primary; Graham won with 56%.
Thus, at the recent state Republican convention, Texan Ted Cruz, hard-line hero of the right, probably got the most applause. “Fortunately for Graham, a lot more people vote in Republican primaries than go to precinct meetings,” says Felkel.
Moreover, not all South Carolina Republicans believe Graham’s candidacy is a serious bid for the presidency. Some suggest that he’s in the race to promote his foreign policy views, to get an important post in a Republican administration, to take pot-shots at Rand Paul, or, said one GOPer, at the behest of the pro-defense-spending “military-industrial complex, not to sound too conspiratorial.”
Ironically, given that Rand Paul and Graham are at loggerheads on foreign policy, the two have a lot in common. Both are willing to stretch the GOP’s appeal beyond its traditional white, socially conservative base. Paul has reached out to African-Americans with his calls for changes in the criminal justice system. Graham, citing the protests and riots in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, said Republicans can give big cities a new direction by “shutting down failing schools and replacing them with something that works. I see a Republican Party giving people in Baltimore and nearly every other big city hope like they haven’t seen in the past eight years.”
Graham probably got his biggest notice in the media, however, when he said on CNN, “If Caitlyn Jenner wants to be safe and have a prosperous economy, vote for me. I’m into addition. I haven’t walked in her shoes. I don’t have all the answers to the mysteries of life,” the most positive comment about Jenner of any of the GOP’s presidential wannabes. Noting that he was for traditional marriage, Graham said, “The courts are going to rule probably in June about traditional marriage. I will accept the court’s decision.”
The media has made news out of Graham’s bachelorhood. Graham has responded by saying the role of First Lady in a Graham White House could be played by his sister or friends, telling Politico, “We’ll have a rotating First Lady.” And when Graham was interviewed by Smerconish on CNN, the first question out of the gate was about Graham being a bachelor. He deftly talked about his family responsibilities following the death of his parents while he was at the University of South Carolina, leaving him with a 13-year-old sister.
In any case, “Underestimating Lindsey Graham is always a mistake,” says Napier. “He’s a very astute political animal. He’s a street fighter, and he’s surrounded himself with good people.” Stay tuned.