The pungent scent of sauerkraut permeates the room, but Lindsey Graham doesn’t have time to try it, or the pretzels, bratwurst, and schnitzel at the buffet. Each one of the few dozen business types gathered to celebrate the opening of a local chapter of the German-American Chamber of Commerce wants a chance to meet the senator, and Graham is more than eager to chat. An aide brings him a Coke Zero (his favorite), which he sips intermittently.
Graham is unassuming in his ordinary gray suit and dusty black shoes. The businessmen mostly look a little sharper. That doesn’t matter, though. They all want to shake the powerful senator’s hand, have their picture taken with him, and get in their word or two. He smiles at them all and asks, in his nasal twang, “How’s business?”
In an interview on our way to the reception, Graham says he sees himself as the “go-to guy” for South Carolina. That’s why he pushed for federal funding to deepen the Port of Charleston and fought against the National Labor Relations Board’s objection to Boeing’s relocation to South Carolina, a right-to-work state. If BMW, the German luxury auto giant that located its only American plant in South Carolina in 1994, has concerns about new federal seatbelt regulations, Graham wants to fix it. If immigration reform will make it easier for BMW to bring in high-skilled engineers from overseas, well, Graham will fight for it. “What I try to offer back home is to be the guy that will go to bat effectively in Washington,” Graham tells me. “We’re a service industry, and I try to create a service mentality around the job.”
In his brief remarks before the gathered suits, Graham says he is a strong ally of the business community, “without apology, without hesitation,” and promises to help make government work for businesses. “As long as I’m the senator from South Carolina, I will boldly and clearly stand with the chamber of commerce,” he says.
Graham, a 58-year-old Republican running for reelection this year, is likely to keep his job for as long as he likes. For many conservatives, this may be a difficult pill to swallow. In the realms of talk radio and the right-wing blogosphere, Graham’s name is a joke. He’s known to Rush Limbaugh’s listeners and Michelle Malkin’s readers as “Lindsey Grahamnesty.” Mark Levin, another conservative radio host, calls him “Goober” and the “Arlen Specter of South Carolina.” Will Folks, a South Carolina-based blogger and political troublemaker, refers to him as “Senator Lindsey Graham (RINO-S.C.)” and says his politics appeal to a “center-left base.”
Some smell blood. So far, four Republicans have declared themselves candidates in the 2014 primary against Graham, including a state senator and the first female graduate of the Citadel, the state’s military college. What’s more, some say Republican support for Graham in South Carolina is crumbling. Republican party committees in seven counties, including Graham’s native Pickens County, have voted to censure the senator. Sounds remarkable, except that in Pickens just 23 party members showed up for the vote. The language they adopted is harsh, accusing Graham of having committed “a long series of actions that we strongly disapprove of and hold to be fundamentally inconsistent with the principles of the South Carolina Republican Party.”
The censure goes on to list 30 points on which Graham has been “fundamentally inconsistent” with the GOP platform. He supports amnesty for illegal immigrants without closing the southern border. He voted for Obama’s nominees to the Supreme Court and to head up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He worked with Democrats on a cap and trade bill. Graham, according to the censure, has also supported “NSA spying on private American citizens,” “Obama’s drone program against American citizens,” and “subordinating American sovereignty to the United Nations.” Republicans have lost primaries for lesser sins, but even Pickens County Republican chairman Philip Bowers is skeptical Graham will lose in 2014.
“Senator Graham will be extremely difficult to unseat,” Bowers says. “Most people understand that, but we are still ready to start the journey. Whether it takes 1 election or 10, we have to start somewhere.”
Extremely difficult? Ten elections? Toppling Graham ought to be a slam dunk for South Carolina conservatives. After his close friend and ally John McCain, he may be the most reviled Republican among the base. It’s not just that he’s been a high-profile supporter of comprehensive immigration reform and willing to give Obama a pass on liberal judges. On national security issues the famously hawkish Graham is a resolute opponent of the libertarian wing, which seeks less engagement. Last year when emerging Senate leaders like Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, and Ted Cruz joined Rand Paul’s talking filibuster in protest of the president’s drone program—the first galvanizing moment for conservatives since Obama’s reelection—-Graham took to the Senate floor to argue against his Republican colleagues’ position.
It wasn’t the first time he had spoiled the GOP’s party. During the George W. Bush administration, Graham joined the bipartisan Gang of 14 that agreed to break a Democratic filibuster over Bush’s judicial nominees while staving off a Republican majority’s effort to change the Senate rules to weaken the minority. That cemented Graham’s image as someone more eager to compromise with Democrats than fight them. In short, he’s what right-wingers call a squish, and in deep-red South Carolina, no less. So why is it so hard for true conservatives to get the senator they deserve?
Graham protests that, for all his unorthodoxies, he is in line with the mainstream of South Carolina voters. What about the charge that he’s a Republican in name only, not a true believer? “If you look at my voting record and my approach to fiscal and social conservative issues, I’m, by any reasonable definition, conservative,” he says. “What I’m not is a person that rejects the idea of trying to solve the problem. And for some, it’s not enough to agree with them on the issue. You have to hate the other side. I’m not going to live my life hating. I don’t have to. To some, the only way to prove you’re conservative is just to tear the other people limb from limb. I can throw a punch, but I also can get something done.”
Graham’s lifetime rating by the American Conservative Union is 89 out of 100. He is one of the pro-life movement’s strongest allies in Congress, most recently as the author of a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation with certain exceptions. In the Obama era, Graham has voted against all of the major legislative efforts of the Democratic agenda, including the stimulus, the Dodd-Frank financial reform package, and Obamacare. When Graham was in the House of Representatives, he made a name for himself on C-SPAN as an incisive interrogator during the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton. More than a decade later, Graham has pushed forward the investigation into the Benghazi scandal. In October, he said he would use his privilege as a senator to hold up all of Obama’s nominations until the administration allowed witnesses to the fatal attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi in 2012 to testify before Congress.
On national security, Graham agrees there’s a lot of energy behind libertarianism in the GOP, but he sees that as all the more reason to stand firm on the idea that America ought to engage—sometimes militarily—in the Middle East and the broader world. “I still think the vast majority of us are in the Ronald Reagan camp of peace through strength,” he says. “But there’s this debate going on in the party, and I want to be part of that debate. It’s not bad to have an alternative view. I just want to make sure my side wins.” It helps that he’s one of the Senate’s authorities on national security issues, regularly briefing the Republican conference alongside John McCain.
That’s another part of the story. Graham is also seen as a go-to guy around Congress. While known for his willingness to work with Democrats, he’s one of the most popular senators among Republicans. “He’s always stood out, and I think a lot of people appreciate that,” says McCain. Besides McCain, some of Graham’s closest friends in the Senate are Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Richard Burr of North Carolina, and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.
Members of South Carolina’s House Republican delegation, all considerably more conservative than Graham, are fond of their senior senator, too. One of them is Trey Gowdy, who was first elected to the House in the Tea Party wave of 2010 after defeating a Republican incumbent whom Graham had supported. Gowdy is effusive with praise for Graham.
“He and his staff went beyond the call of duty to help the four freshmen of 2010,” Gowdy says. “He offers to help with no conditions. He doesn’t carry grudges.”
Graham’s also known as a cutup with a great sense of humor and comedic timing. During a recent meeting of a group of GOP senators, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin began talking passionately about the need to stop Obamacare from hurting more Americans. They would need to work with the House, Johnson was saying, because things were only going to get worse. It was a serious discussion, but Graham could see it needed some levity, so he broke in. “If you like your Ron Johnson, you can keep your Ron Johnson,” he said. The group burst into laughter.
He also knows how to poke fun at himself. A frequent guest on Greta van Susteren’s Fox News program, Graham has taken to joking with colleagues that it should be renamed the “Lindsey van Graham Show.” Gowdy remembers the first time he met Graham, in 2002, when Graham was running for the Senate for the first time. Gowdy was a state solicitor in Spartanburg, and Graham, a lifelong bachelor, asked how he could win Gowdy’s hometown. “I told him, ‘You need to get married.’ And he laughed and laughed at that,” said Gowdy.
Graham’s personal life is just about the only thing he doesn’t talk about much. He was born in 1955 in Central, a town in South Carolina’s upstate. The state was different back then—segregated, poor, and reliant on a dying textile industry. Graham grew up in the Sanitary Café, the combination pool hall-liquor store-restaurant his parents owned in Central.
“When you’re raised by a family that owns their own business, you don’t go on many vacations,” Graham tells me. “You’ve got to go to work no matter how you feel.”
Central is just down the road from Clemson University, but Graham opted to attend the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where he became the first in his family to graduate from college. In 1976, when he was 21 years old and in his senior year, his mother died from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Soon after, Graham began law school at the University of South Carolina, but tragedy struck again 15 months later when his father died from a stroke.
Suddenly, Graham was an orphaned law student with a 14-year-old sister, Darline, and a large stack of medical bills. It would take him more than 10 years to pay them all off, though he had help from his parents’ Social Security benefits. While in law school, he would come home on the weekends and summers to help his uncle run his parents’ business, both paying his way through school and acting as a surrogate father to his sister. After graduating, Graham joined the Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps. He also adopted Darline so she could receive his military benefits while she was still a minor.
Bart Daniel, a former U.S. attorney and a lawyer in Charleston, befriended Graham in law school. He says he remembers Graham’s calm, workmanlike demeanor, in contrast with some of their freewheeling classmates.
“While all the other guys were out having a good time, Lindsey was taking care of his little sister,” Daniel says.
Graham served six years as an active duty Air Force JAG, four of them stationed in Germany, which he calls “some of the best days of my life.” It was during his time in the service that he says he became a Reagan Republican. “You know why I became a Ronald Reagan fan? I came on active duty in 1982, and he increased pay 25 percent that year,” he says, chuckling. “I came in as a new captain with a 25 percent pay raise. I said, ‘I like this guy.’ ”
With an average net worth of less than $700,000, Graham’s not rich by the standards of the increasingly millionaire-studded Congress. His car is an unremarkable Ford Crown Victoria that looks like something a cop or a grandmother might drive. Graham lives alone in Seneca, a town near Central that borders the manmade Lake Keowee, a popular vacation and retirement spot. When I ask his longtime aide Kevin Bishop if Graham’s house is on the lake, Bishop just laughs. “No, he’s not fancy,” he says.
In 1988, Graham left active duty to join South Carolina’s Air National Guard and the Air Force reserve. (Now a colonel in the reserves, Graham still periodically serves overseas in war zones. He was in Afghanistan at the beginning of this year, for example, spending five days on reserve duty and two days as a senator, meeting with Afghan president Hamid Karzai.)
After serving a term as a state house member, Graham was elected to the U.S. House in 1994, the first Republican from his district since Reconstruction. He’d won reelection to the House three times when the centenarian Strom Thurmond announced he would not be running for a ninth term in the Senate in 2002. Graham was unopposed in the primary and went on to win what became a very competitive race for the first open Senate seat in South Carolina in 36 years. Six years later, Graham trounced his primary opponent and took home more than a million votes in the general election. That’s still the record for the most votes received by a Republican running statewide in South Carolina—including presidential candidates.
“Never underestimate the tenacity and complete alligator political hide of Lindsey Graham,” says Katon Dawson, the former chairman of the South Carolina Republican party. Republicans around the state say Graham is always ready to turn up for fundraisers or campaign events for other Republicans. It’s noteworthy that not one of the six GOP congressmen from South Carolina is challenging Graham. “His political instincts are as good as anyone’s,” says Trey Gowdy.
If there’s a political game Lindsey Graham is playing, it’s the long one. He says he’s learned in his years in Congress how hard it is to change an institution, and that change in the right direction takes a lot of time and effort. I ask him how long he’d like to stay a senator, and he pauses. He doesn’t really know, though he thinks the next decade will be critical for two of his most important issues: foreign policy and entitlement reform. The latter will require, he thinks, significant support from a prominent Democrat, just as welfare reform did in the 1990s.
“I try to push the envelope on reform and be a solid conservative, but also create space where I can do something,” Graham says. “I guess the biggest thing I’ve learned is, when you build up political capital, use it.”
Graham still thinks immigration reform is important for the future of the country and the Republican party. He recognizes that Americans are weary of war and fears that it will take another domestic terrorist attack to remind the country that radical Islam has declared war on freedom and the West. He knows these positions and many others put him at odds with elements of his base, and, despite a weak primary field, they could cost him reelection. He shrugs it off.
“I know what to do or say to keep this job for 100 years,” Graham insists. “But I want my time to matter.”
Michael Warren is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.