Is a Defense-Sector Ally in Danger of Losing His Senate Seat?

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., points to images of firearms during a Jan. 30 hearing about gun control on Capitol Hill. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Senate Armed Services Committee member and defense business sector ally Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has gained influence in Washington this year as the White House has courted mostly moderate Senate Republicans. But back home, voters are taking a second look at the senior senator from the Palmetto State.

Is Graham in danger of losing his 2014 re-election fight? It’s a bit too early to even declare his seat as in-play, but a new poll suggests Graham won’t simply coast to victory next November.

A Winthrop University poll released this week found Graham’s approval rating among registered voters has tumbled to 44 percent. More telling is his drop among registered Republicans and independents who lean toward the GOP. Among this hybrid group — his base — 57.5 percent approve of Graham’s performance, down from 71.6 percent in February.

What’s behind that nearly 14-percentage point drop?

“This drop corresponds to the entry of two vocal challengers, and discussion of a third, into the primary race against him,” the Winthrop pollsters said in a statement.

One is South Carolina attorney Richard Cash, a social conservative who said on his website he is “running to replace Senator Lindsey Graham because I believe that after 20 years in Washington he is out of touch with South Carolina values and voters.”

“I cannot distinguish his core principles and can no longer trust his judgment,” Cash said in a statement. “It is time for a new voice in Washington. We need a voice that represents Christian, conservative, and Republican principles instead of the latest bipartisan ‘deal’ that simply makes matters worse.”

Cash clearly has taken note of Graham’s inclusion in talks with President Barack Obama on the kind of so-called “grand bargain” fiscal deal that would further pare the federal deficit while also replacing the remaining $450 billion (aprx.) in cuts to planned Pentagon spending mandated under current law over the next nine years.

Unlike some Republicans facing a primary challenge from their political right, Graham has talked openly about compromising on taxes in order to get Obama and congressional Democrats to make big entitlement program reforms. Here’s how I reported a conversation on this I had with the senator last month:

“I’m willing to do $600 billion more in revenue if they’re willing to do entitlement reform. … The off ramp should be Republicans put revenue on the table to get the president close to the $1.2 trillion” in deficit-reduction measures mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act to void all the sequester cuts.

In return, Graham suggests Democrats agree to “structurally change Medicare,” raising the Medicare-eligibility age, and provide other changes to domestic programs.

“I think we should look at the big deal,” Graham said as he headed in to vote. “And I’m willing to do some revenues.”

While Graham’s work with Obama has riled conservative Republicans like Cash, Graham stood with them in opposing the bill the Senate defeated Tuesday that would have strengthened background checks for those attempting to purchase firearms.

Being so adamantly pro-gun likely foreshadows Graham’s actions and votes as his primary battle heats up. His challenger’s own words make that pretty clear.

“The origins and foundation of American greatness lies in Christianity, capitalism, and the Constitution,” Cash said.

To be sure, Graham will be well-funded — and it’s a safe bet he will receive some campaign cash from U.S. defense firms as they seek to keep an ally in office.

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett