Republican presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., pauses as he speaks about the Iran nuclear agreement at a National Press Club luncheon in Washington, D.C. Sept. 8, 2015.
Photo by Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Poll answers the ‘What happened to Lindsey Graham?’ question


It wasn’t long after Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was elected to the Senate in 2002 that he positioned himself as one of the chamber’s more constructive lawmakers. It’s not that Graham was a moderate on the major issues of the day – he’s always been a rather staunch conservative – but he demonstrated a willingness to forge relationships and work on bipartisan agreements.

The South Carolinian also occasionally expressed concern about the future of his Republican Party, warning that too much radicalism and too little interest in broadening the GOP’s appeal would lead to electoral setbacks. Even here, the senator’s concerns seemed rooted in pragmatism.

That version of Lindsey Graham is gone. The senator who condemned Donald Trump’s rise now carries the president’s water. The lawmaker who believed in partnering with Democrats now prefers bitter partisanship to cooperation. Graham’s eagerness to pass bills has been replaced with a desire to impress his party’s far-right base.

There’s no shortage of speculation as to what caused Graham’s metamorphosis, and as we recently discussed, there are even occasional conspiracy theories about Trump having something damaging on the senator, which the president uses to extort Graham into compliance.

The truth is simpler.

Regarding U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, his approval rating among Republicans has continued to rise, it now stands at 74% in the Winthrop Poll. Only 25% of Democrats polled support Graham.

“Graham’s approval has benefited from his defense of, and alignment with, President Trump. While Graham’s numbers used to lag those of other Republicans among GOP identifiers, since he has taken up the President’s banner on most every issue, his approval among Republicans in South Carolina has steadily risen,” [Dr. Scott Huffmon, Winthrop poll director] said.

A year ago, Graham’s approval among South Carolina Republicans was 51%, and there was a very real chance the senator would face a primary rival ahead of his 2020 re-election bid.

Today, his approval among South Carolina Republicans is 74% – and the chatter about a primary challenge has disappeared.

There’s no great mystery here. Graham made a simple calculus: constructive legislating imperiled his career, so an overhaul of his tactical position became unavoidable.

The senator recently told the New York Times, “If you don’t want to get re-elected, you’re in the wrong business.”

And it’s the pursuit of this goal that led Graham to shed his skin, transform into a Trump cheerleader, and embrace his role as a fierce partisan. He’s been around long enough to survey the landscape effectively – and in 2019, many Republicans, especially those from ruby-red states, who stray from the White House’s wishes, and fail to swear undying allegiance to Trump, find their careers in peril.

It’s why Graham made a rather dramatic change, and the latest polling suggests his plan is succeeding. Whether he’ll look back at this stage in his professional life, however, and reflect on whether it was worth it, remains to be seen.