“Lindsey ... A cycle ago? Two cycles ago? He was every Democrat’s favorite Republican in South Carolina. Pragmatic, consensus builder, get things done,” Steve Benjamin told me when I interviewed him last month. Benjamin is the Democratic mayor of Columbia, S.C., who has known and worked with Graham for years. “We just don’t recognize Senator Graham anymore. We just don’t recognize him. He was pretty effective and pragmatic until just a few years ago when things started to change pretty dramatically,” Benjamin said.
According to the mayor, what changed was a 2018 primary challenge by John Warren to Gov. Henry McMaster, the sitting Republican governor who took over from Nikki Haley when she became the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2017. McMaster failed to win 50 percent of the Republican primary vote to avoid a runoff against Warren. In the end, McMaster won the election. But Benjamin believes that what spooked Graham was Warren saying he was “definitely considering” a run against Graham, the state’s senior senator.
“I think we live in a great conservative state, and we deserve two conservative senators,” Warren said in a 2018 interview with former Fox News host Eric Bolling nine days after losing to McMaster. “We have one in Tim Scott.” By September of this year, Warren ruled out a challenge to Graham. But Graham is not out of electoral danger just yet. The latest polls show that Democrat Jaime Harrison is just two points behind Graham.
During my conversation with Benjamin, I was startled to hear him say that he believed South Carolina was trending purple. When I asked him what that meant for someone like Graham, Benjamin said, “Hopefully, it means we send his a-- home.”
During an interview at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum on Dec. 3, Stacey Abrams talked about the voter suppression efforts across the country and during her 2018 governor’s race in Georgia. I was incredulous as she described the lengths to which Republicans were going to deny the right to vote to otherwise eligible citizens. When I asked Abrams whether the political conversions of once-courageous folks such as Graham were all for the sake of power, she replied, “For the sake of power is the driver of almost every decision we make.”
“They had a moment basically between George W. Bush and today to change course, they knew it, they couldn’t do it,” Abrams said, referring to a brief window in 2013, following Barack Obama’s reelection, when senior Republicans recognized that broadening their appeal was a matter of political longevity. “And now they are left with holding on to power through manipulation, theft and immorality, and that immorality is the acceptance of things they know to be wrong.”
And then Abrams zeroed in on Graham. “Lindsey Graham has no other definition to his life,” she said. “He lives in a time where fealty to Donald Trump is the only guarantee of his continued existence as the senator from South Carolina. And when your sole definition of who you are is the position you hold, then you will do anything not to lose that sense of who you are.”
Calling Graham’s political conversion “baffling," Benjamin said, “With some of the complicity we’re seeing in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House, we’re in dangerous times, in dangerous times, scary times.” And I couldn’t agree more since what’s going on with Graham is part of a larger problem with our politics. As Benjamin quipped, “This is not your mama’s Republican Party.”
My view of the Republican Party was shaped during two terms of President Ronald Reagan, one term of President George H.W. Bush and two terms of President George W. Bush. That was the party of family values, fiscal responsibility and the rule of law. That was the party that so distrusted Russia that it would have found it 100 percent galling to have the Russian foreign minister in the Oval Office after the entire U.S. intelligence apparatus determined that Russia, under the direct orders of the Russian president, aggressively interfered in a U.S. election.
But that party is dead. And the impending impeachment of President Trump in the House and the expected failure of old-school Republicans in the Senate to vote to convict and remove him from office will be further proof of its demise.
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