Graham May Have a Tough Time in 2016 Race

CHARLESTON, S.C., May 23, 2015 -- An Australian who follows politics wrote wondering whether our own U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham would get momentum if he won the state's first-in-the-South GOP presidential primary next year.

Yes, he would -- but he'd have to win the primary, which at this point seems highly unlikely.

It's hard to conceive of a path for Graham, who is stretching out an announcement until June 1, to win the GOP nomination. It doesn't have anything to do with his qualifications, but with pure, power politics. Lord knows that Lindsey Graham, big buddy of former GOP presidential standard-bearer John McCain, is a whiz at foreign policy and lots of other things.

But Graham, you'll recall, had six challengers last year in his Senate re-election bid. While he beat all in the primary with 56.4 percent of the vote, more than two in five voters were upset enough with him to vote for somebody else. That doesn't show lots of strong support among the GOP base, some of whom were ticked off about Graham's position on immigration and other issues close to the ultra-conservative wing of the party.

Then in the November general election, Graham got a respectable 54.3 percent of the vote in a field of four candidates. Graham's winning percentage, however, followed that for Gov. Nikki Haley (55.9 percent), Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster (58.8 percent) and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (61.1 percent).

Fast forward to today. National polls show Graham at the back of a crowded field of candidates in the early running.'s average polling percentage for the last month says Graham grabs 1.3 percent of the vote -- the same as Carly Fiorino and Bobby Jindal.

In South Carolina, Graham also isn't leading. An April Winthrop Poll indicates that only 7.6 percent of likely South Carolina GOP primary voters would support their home state senator in next year's presidential primary. And while 37 percent said they would consider voting for him, 55 percent said they would not. Meanwhile, the poll shows Graham's approval rating is 58.2 percent -- behind the general view of the state legislature (61 percent) and Haley (79 percent). With as little respect as many seem to feel for the recalcitrant legislature these days, for Graham to score below legislators shows he has a problem with the GOP base here at home.

So just based on numbers, it's hard to see how Graham could get the support at home to gain any momentum to win the GOP presidential nod.

But why he would want to try at all? A number of theories emerge after talks with those who follow Republican politics:

  • Another job. Perhaps Graham is angling, some wonder, for another job if a Republican becomes the next president. Graham is one of the most popular guests on the Sunday political talk shows in Washington because of his home-spun pragmatism and vast experience with the military and foreign policy. He might, many say, make a great secretary of state or secretary of defense, both of which might give a good scare to lots of folks in the Middle East who provide trouble for the U.S. Or some wonder whether he would make a good vice presidential candidate. That's unlikely, others say, because South Carolina is a predictably red state in presidential balloting and the number two on the ticket generally brings something to the ticket by being able to deliver a swing state.
  • Kingmaker. Graham may be running to get more credibility in national politics to be able to anoint the next GOP presidential candidate. As a presidential contender -- and an important friend of McCain's -- he could bring a key endorsement or a few at a crucial time.

But Graham would be in the race to win, not just pussyfoot around, according to a former staffer.

"He was not supposed to win the last primary without a runoff, but being a tenacious campaigner paid off," said Bill Tuten, now a consultant in the Charleston area. "It's another example of how he has been underestimated in the past and then over-performed. And in my opinion, he is going to join the race to win -- that will be his only objective. I honestly don't think that he would have an interest in a cabinet position."

Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Statehouse Report, a South Carolina politics and policy forecast where this column first appeared.