Graham's Exit Opens Doors in New Hampshire, South Carolina
Lindsey Graham may not have resonated in the polls, but his exit from the Republican presidential race will open doors to other candidates in New Hampshire and the senator’s home state of South Carolina.
Over two decades in Congress, Graham has built up a powerful political network and well of goodwill at home, which will now be freed up to help his like-minded former rivals. Many GOP operatives in the state either stayed on the sidelines out of respect for Graham or joined Graham's presidential campaign; now, all are free agents in what figures to be a consequential primary in the Palmetto State.
"Lindsey's endorsement will mean a lot financially and organizationally to a candidate, and it's going to allow a lot of people to make some moves," said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina party chairman. Dawson said he is now interested in helping another candidate with Graham out of the race.
Graham's departure also presents opportunities for those vying to win New Hampshire. Sen. John McCain, a Granite State darling, had endorsed his close friend and spent time campaigning there for Graham, with events as recently as this past weekend. McCain is now free to throw his support behind another candidate, several of whom have modeled their campaigns around McCain’s successful New Hampshire-centered strategy.
While he wasn't able to gain traction in the polls, hovering around 1 percent, Graham made a name for himself in the presidential primary not only as a staunch foreign policy hawk but also as moderate Republicans’ moral compass of sorts. A co-author of the 2013 immigration reform bill, he warned the party against alienating minority voters and women, or risk losing another presidential election. In this vein, Graham also blasted Donald Trump and Ted Cruz incessantly.
The question remains, however, where Graham's support and political resources go.
The senator's donors mentioned Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush as likely beneficiaries of his exit. The finance director for John Kasich's super PAC announced on Twitter the support from a handful of former Graham backers.
Graham left the race on the day of the deadline for removing his name from the South Carolina ballot, avoiding a potentially embarrassing vote in his home state that might have invited challenges to his Senate seat down the line. Although Graham won re-election by a wide margin in 2014 after defeating a slew of challengers in his GOP primary, that home-field advantage did not translate to his polling in the presidential race: As of Monday, he polled at less than 2 percent in South Carolina, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, ranking him ninth among Republicans.
On a call with donors Monday announcing his decision, Graham said he felt good about his bid and is now thinking about whom to support. The senator knew he needed to make a decision, and he believed he could have more impact on the remaining primary process by announcing his departure before the Iowa and New Hampshire votes.
David Wilkins, a former ambassador and Graham's South Carolina finance chairman, said he expected the senator to endorse after the holidays. "I think it would be a meaningful endorsement," he said, noting Graham's financial network.
Even prior to his bid for president, Graham was seen as a key endorsement and an influential voice in the party: Jeb Bush helped him raise money during Graham’s Senate primary, and a few candidates, Bush included, consulted with him on foreign policy leading up to their bids and in the early stages of running.
Candidates likely sought his support and counsel in part because they never viewed him as a serious rival for the nomination — and many of Graham’s supporters, too, saw him less as a serious contender than as an important voice in the process. One Republican fundraiser with ties to Graham said most donors were already supporting multiple candidates, including Bush, and that some might also be inclined to support Rubio. Another state operative said Graham's support in the polls was likely to split between Bush and Rubio.
Ozzie Palomo, a northeast co-chairman for Graham’s finance committee, said most donors would likely take the holidays to consider whom to support next. "Personally I find Christie very attractive based on his experience," Palomo said, although he has not yet settled on supporting the New Jersey governor in the primary.
Rival campaigns are already busy courting Graham's network. Walt Wilkins, a member of the Graham finance team and nephew of David Wilkins, said he immediately reached out to the Rubio campaign, which had courted him earlier in the election cycle. South Carolina votes third in the GOP primary process.
Wilkins said Graham defined the race in terms of national security, and believes the senator's message will continue to resonate even if he's no longer in the race. Rubio has made foreign policy and national security a key focus of his campaign, and an area of contrast with Cruz. Wilkins noted that Bush is still very well liked in the state, but that Trump and Ben Carson are, too.
South Carolina GOP Chairman Matt Moore said the candidate who performs well in South Carolina on Feb. 20 will appeal to the three spectrums of conservatism in the state: social, fiscal and military. South Carolina's primary tests "projectability," Moore said, noting that the coming debates will have a notable impact on how the race shapes up there.
The next GOP primary debate will take place in Charleston in mid January, hosted by Fox Business Network.
Newt Gingrich won South Carolina in 2012 after a well-received debate performance, breaking the state's record of choosing presidents.