Lindsey Graham may be the single best politician in the U.S. Senate.
That fact, which we have long believed, was affirmed on Tuesday night when the South Carolina Republican won renomination against six -- yes, six! -- challengers, a victory that as recently as six months ago was far from a sure thing as conservatives insisted his apostasy on immigration (among other issues) would cost him. Not so much. Graham took 56 percent of the vote (he needed 50 percent to avoid a potentially dangerous runoff) with his closest challenger receiving just 15 percent.
"He ran a flawless campaign," said Jim Dyke, a Republican consultant based in South Carolina who supported one of Graham's opponents. "He identified the threat early, outlined a game plan and stuck to it. He was not afraid to engage regularly and aggressively with voters which has to accompany the messaging. It was impressive at every step."
This isn't the first time Graham has shown off his considerable political chops.
His first campaign for the Senate, for the seat of retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond (R), was an absolute marvel -- starting with the fact that Graham was able to unite the warring GOP consulting factions in the state behind his candidacy. At the start of the open seat race, there was some buzz among Democrats nationally about the possibility of Alex Sanders, the then President of the College of Charleston, pulling off an upset. As the 2002 Almanac of American Politics noted: "[Sanders] charmed reporters and was profiled by Joe Klein in the New Yorker and on '60 Minutes'." But, Graham never gave Sanders an opening -- running a flawless, literally, campaign and winning by 10 points.
Six years later, Graham wasn't seriously opposed in the primary (where he won with 67 percent) or the general election (where he won with 58 percent). But, in the wake of that race conservatives -- both in the state and nationally -- insisted that 2014 would be his Waterloo, the time when his allegedly moderate/liberal record would catch up with him. Graham seemed to further anger the ideological right in 2010 when he predicted the tea party would "die out" because of its inability to "come up with a coherent vision for governing the country." Here's a longer excerpt from Robert Draper's terrific 2010 new York Times Magazine profile of Graham:
For his sins, Glenn Beck termed the senator Obama Lite, while Rush Limbaugh labeled him Lindsey Grahamnesty. Less tame are the blogosphere monikers, like “Miss Lindsey,” that play off of Graham’s never-married status. During a South Carolina Tea Party rally this spring, one speaker created an uproar by postulating that Graham supported a guest-worker program out of fear that the Democrats might otherwise expose his homosexuality.
That sturm und drang around Graham coupled with the success that tea-party backed candidates enjoyed in Senate primaries in 2010 and 2012 and South Carolina's runoff law all seemed to add up to a very challenging environment for Graham this time around. But, Graham knew that and began planning for the possibility of a real primary fight -- or, more accurately, working to avoid a real primary fight -- years ago.
Jim Hodges, a Democrat who spent four years as the governor of the Palmetto State and went to law school with Graham, marveled at the Republican's pre-emptive strike. "He started preparing for this fight several years ago, and made a concerted effort to maximize his resources and minimize his serious competition," said Hodges. "He won the primary race when the books closed, because he didn't have one opponent [but] a large number of underfunded candidates fighting for attention."
Hodges is absolutely right. Of the state's seven-person House delegation, six are Republicans. Not one decided to run. No statewide elected official made the race. What remained was a sort of Star Wars bar of has-been's and never-will-be's -- none of whom could raise the money to distinguish themselves from the pack. That meant that the anti-Graham vote was split six ways, with four candidates on Tuesday taking between five percent and eight percent of the vote.
But, Graham didn't stop there. He made sure to emphasize his strong hawkish views on foreign policy at every turn, knowing that it was a place where he and those skeptical of him had common ground. "Rather than just lie in wait for his opponents to emerge, Graham methodically pursued a positive issue agenda to build bridges with conservative voters," explained Steven Law, the head of American Crossroads.
Watch Graham's closing TV ad -- a perfect encapsulation of emphasizing your strengths while minimizing your weaknesses.
And, Graham made sure that his message had lots (and lots) of money behind it. As of May 21, he had spent $7.1 million on the race -- a sort of better-safe-than-sorry approach that other incumbents would do well to follow. "Lindsey Graham understands that you are either on offense or you are losing," said GOP consultant Mike Murphy.
This description of Graham, which came to us from a Republican operative who regularly works in South Carolina politics, captures the essence of Graham: "He doesn’t mind taking risks and spending political capital on the things he believes in -- but he always saves just enough to do what he needs to do back home. Super smart, disciplined, and always focused. Most of his strongest opponents would probably acknowledge that."
They would. Graham is a remarkably skilled politician, one of the best doing what he does in the country.