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April 23, 2014 12:16 PM Lindsey Graham: Exception or Rule?

By Ed Kilgore

For those of us who tend to dismiss Republican Establishment (and MSM) talk about the ephemeral nature of the Tea Party and the coming apotheosis of “pragmatism” in the GOP, Sen. Lindsey Graham of SC is a problematic example. While on most issues Graham is a standard conservative Republican devoted to the wealth of “job-creators,” the preservation of patriarchal culture, and most of all the perpetuation of the military-industrial complex, he does systematically annoy movement-conservatives with his regular membership in various bipartisan Senate “gangs,” his specific arch-heresy on immigration policy, and his lectures to Republicans about greater inclusiveness and “problem-solving.”

Yet even though he represents the beating heart of Constitutional Conservativedom, by all accounts he seems to be drifting towards a relatively easy re-election over a scattered field of Republican detractors. Just next door in Georgia, a senator with far fewer ideological scars on his record, Saxby Chambliss, was all but thrown out of his seat. How does Graham do it?

At Politico today, Manu Raju addresses this question, and beneath the author’s irritating air of satisfaction at a Republican who is Getting It Right and outmaneuvering the Tea Yokels, you can find some answers: superior fundraising, world-class constituent services, strategic courting of potential rivals, and probably a lot of luck. Had the Tea Folk who do indeed despise Graham united early behind a primary opponent, the incumbent might not be in such a powerful position in advance of a June 10 contest. It’s even possible that someone—state senator Lee Bright or up-and-comer Nancy Mace—could convince conservative activists to concentrate their support instead of trying cumulatively to knock Graham into a runoff, and make a late run. According to a recent Winthrop University poll, Graham’s overall favorable/unfavorable rating among registered voters is underwater; he’s less popular than the often-derided Gov. Nikki Haley, and has engendered a lot more hostility than his freshman colleague Tim Scott. Just as importantly, if his campaign projects the kind of smug triumphalism Raju conveys about Graham’s political genius, he could enter the primary home-stretch underestimating the competition.

All in all, Graham looks more like an exception than a rule for contemporary Republican politics. It’s hard to imagine his peculiar mix of qualities being successfully replicated elsewhere. But it does seem his story is already being written up as the opening chapter of a 2014 narrative that will position the GOP as a wised-up party ready to behave “pragmatically” in 2016, and seize total power after crushing the crazy people. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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