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Lindsey Graham, Looking Out for No. 1

By Juliet Eilperin
He's campaigned with GOP presidential nominee John McCain all over the country. He chomped on barbeque with McCain and his entire press entourage last weekend in Sedona, Ariz. Now, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) needs to get back home and look after his own political fortunes.

Spotted at Reagan National Airport Thursday night, Graham cheerily called out to The Trail and explained he was finally en route to South Carolina now that McCain had locked up his party's nomination.

"I've got to campaign for me. You know," he confided, "I'm up for reelection."

In fact Graham, who has angered conservative Republicans by siding with McCain on issues ranging from immigration and torture to a bipartisan deal on federal judicial nominees, faces not one, not two, but five potential primary challengers.

Buddy Witherspoon, an orthodontist and former Republican National Committee member, has already run a series of cable TV ads featuring illegal immigrants entering the U.S. with a Spanish narrator saying, "Gracias Lindsey Graham," and has suggested the first-term senator might abandon his constituents to join a future McCain administration.

Others who are publicly mulling over a bid against him including former Myrtle Beach mayor Mark McBride, banking consultant Tim Carnes, Summeville businessman John Cina and Mount Pleasant attorney Michael Cone. Cone is the lone Democrat in the group.

Still, Graham said he wouldn't abandon McCain for long. "I'll be back out on the trail," he promised, hustling to make his flight.

By Washington Post Editor  |  March 7, 2008; 6:55 AM ET
Categories:  John McCain , South , The GOP  
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There are few members of the Senate I would like to be defeated more than Lindsey Graham, of South Caronlina.

The Bush White House and Carl Rove and Ralph Reed worked very hard to get him elected in 2002. They defeated the South Carolina Lieutenant Governor and Secretary of State--both good conservative Republicans in order to elect Graham.

Regular and Conservative Republicans worked for the Democratic candidate that year, they were so opposed to the White House backed Graham candidacy.

Maybe South carolina will wake up this year and send Lindsey back home--to Florida, I think it is.

Posted by: rphillips1 | March 7, 2008 6:21 PM | Report abuse

Graham is right to be a little preoccupied. For him and four other Deep South senators, there are a few numbers to consider:

Alabama's African American population: 26.3%

Georgia's: 29.9%

Louisiana's: 31.7%

Mississippi's: 37.1%

North Carolina's: 21.7%

South Carolina's: 29.0%

Of these six Southern states where blacks make up more than 20 percent of the total population, five have Republican senators up for re-election this fall: Jeff Sessions (AL), Saxby Chambliss (GA), Thad Cochran (MS), Elizabeth Dole (NC) and Lindsay Graham (SC). Mary Landrieu (LA) is the lone Democratic senator up for re-election in these 20+ percent black Deep South states.

If you look at the larger picture for a moment, you can see that we're presented with a very unique situation: Five Senate seats that under normal circumstances would be considered very safe for the GOP incumbent could be put in play if Barack Obama becomes the Democratic nominee this fall. Sen. Obama, after all, has demonstrated an obvious ability to electrify African American voters and get them to turn out in disproportionately high numbers.

If the astounding African American Democratic primary turnout in South Carolina is any indication, an Obama candidacy in the general election could well present a real threat to Graham and the four other entrenched GOP Deep-South senators. Even if the Republicans were able to successfully defend all five of these seats, it would come at the cost of using precious resources that would otherwise be poured into other hotly contested races throughout the country. Howard Dean's 50-state strategy paid off in '06 even without presidential coattails to ride. With Obama actively campaigning throughout the South, firing up the black vote, we'd at least have the possibility of picking up a few seats in the Senate, including Graham's, and likely the House as well.

Just for grins and giggles, here's the breakdown of Republican and Democratic House members within those six 20-percent-plus black-populace states:

Alabama: 5 GOP, 2 Dem

Georgia: 7 GOP, 6 Dem

Louisiana: 5 GOP, 2 Dem

Mississippi: 2 GOP, 2 Dem

N. Carolina: 6 GOP, 13 Dem

S. Carolina: 4 GOP, 2 Dem

As you can see, of these six states, the GOP holds a majority of House seats in nearly all of them. However, if Obama runs and motivates a large number of African American voters to go to the polls, it's pretty obvious to me that some of these GOP seats would shift from safe to competitive, and at least a couple of them would switch hands. Again, the strain on GOP coffers from having to defend so many seats assumed to be uncontestable would mean fewer resources available to pour into other races throughout the country. An Obama candidacy will put the Republicans at a significant financial disadvantage, based on the scenario I've just laid out. Strategically, if you're a Democrat and want to defend and expand your Congressional majorities in the House and Senate, voting for Obama would seem to be the only logical move.

Now switch all this around and think of what happens in those same six states if Sen. Clinton becomes the Democratic candidate. African Americans who rightly or wrongly believe the Clintons played the race card to defeat Obama decide to stay at home (again), the GOP breathes a sigh of relief that it won't have as many competitive contests and can lavish greater spending on fewer races, Southern Republicans become energized at the prospect of being able to vote against their Public Enemy Number One and turn out in droves, and the Democrats go down to defeat and very likely lose their 1-seat majority in the Senate, and perhaps the House as well.

If you're a Democrat, voting for Obama is the only guaranteed winning move if you want to stay the majority party. But since we Dems have always been our own worst enemies, I still give Hillary an excellent chance of getting the nomination and losing everything for us.

Posted by: whatmeregister | March 7, 2008 2:19 PM | Report abuse

Isn't US Ambassador to Canada (a former SC House speaker) David Wilkins still the leading potential right wing challenger to Graham in a primary? If he decides to leave Ottawa in the near future, that would be a sure sign he is planning to take on Graham, which would probably unify the right in the primary.

With the potential for a nasty Republican contest, you'd hope that the Democrats would find a top flight candidate for November.

Posted by: terje2 | March 7, 2008 8:54 AM | Report abuse

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