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June 09, 2014 1:10 PM The Graham Formula

By Ed Kilgore

As someone who has written very often of the rightward trend in the GOP, and mocked efforts to claim that the semi-mythical Republican Establishment is crushing extremism in the party just in time for a “moderate” presidential run in 2016, the case that gives me most pause will be on display tomorrow in South Carolina. Lindsey Graham, the great Republican purveyor of bipartisan “gangs,” who on occasion courts disaster by taunting the Tea Folk, is cruising for an easy renomination in the land of secession, neo-secession, we-don’t-need-no-unions here, and Jim DeMint.

The early thinking in this race was that a passel of Graham opponents might muster enough collective backing to knock him into a runoff, in which national conservative groups would rush in and conduct a brisk and effective RINO-purge. But none of them have gained any real traction. To give you an idea of how the challengers have fared, FITS News proprietor and libertarian trouble-maker Will Folks endorsed the once-promising rising star Nancy Mace after denouncing her campaign as a “sorry and forgettable experiment” and predicting an easy Graham win. State senator Lee Bright seems to have emerged as the best of a bad lot of pretenders to the Senate, but he’s struggling to hit double-digits in the most recent polls.

So other than getting lucky with his field of opponents, what’s been Graham’s formula for success? Money’s obviously one factor; as of May 21, he had outspent the rest of the field 5-1. Campaign skill and attention to detail is another; Graham’s showing nothing like the lassitude of Thad Cochran or other past long-in-the-tooth GOP primary victims.

But most obviously, Graham has kept the restive conservative base entertained with his leading role in Obama-bashing on quasi-foreign-policy issues, most notably Benghazi! And as the primary has drawn nigh, he’s taken advantage of the Bergdahl exchange to get the “I-word” into his campaign rhetoric, per this report last week from The Hill’s Alexander Bolton:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) warned Wednesday that Republican lawmakers would call for President Obama’s impeachment if he released more prisoners from Guantanamo Bay without congressional approval.
Republicans worry Obama may try to shut down the prison camp unilaterally after congressional opposition has repeatedly stymied efforts to pass legislation to close it.
“It’s going to be impossible for them to flow prisoners out of Gitmo now without a huge backlash,” Graham said. “There will be people on our side calling for his impeachment if he did that.”

This may also be a subtle way for Graham to remind conservative activists that he was part of the prosecution team in the House impeachment of Bill Clinton back in the day.

And he’s not easy to typecast as a RINO unless you are deep in the weeds of intra-conference maneuvering in the Senate: last time the American Conservative Union toted up lifetime scores, Graham’s was at 89%. And he’s been endorsed for re-election by the National Right to Life Committee, from whom he regularly receives 100% voting record ratings.

It would appear, then, that Graham has managed to make himself invulnerable through a combination of luck, skill and opportunism. I have the continuing suspicion that if his former Senate colleague Jim DeMint decided to take him down by finding and endorsing an opponent, he’d be in trouble tomorrow. But for whatever reason, he’s dodged that potential bullet for another six years.

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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