By MANU RAJU
SUMMERVILLE, S.C. — Sen. Lindsey Graham recognized the threat years before it had a chance to form — and knew immediately what he had to do.
After the tea party wave in the 2010 election, right-wing groups were itching to get one of South Carolina’s newly elected conservative congressmen to challenge Graham, the blunt-spoken, deal-making congressional veteran of two decades. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a favorite of the grass roots, was high on their list.
So when Graham got wind in 2012 that Mulvaney wanted a seat on the House Financial Services Committee, he quietly lobbied his longtime friend, Speaker John Boehner, to make it happen. During regular dinners and breakfast meetings, the senator made clear to Mulvaney and other up-and-comers in the delegation that he was there to help with their districts’ needs. All the while, Graham was busy assembling a daunting multimillion-dollar political operation.
Lo and behold, Mulvaney and others thought better of taking on Graham when the time came. “Not being able to win is a really good reason not to run,” Mulvaney said in an interview.
Graham’s deft maneuvering shows why he’s become the dominant political figure in this deeply red state and is skating to another six years even as he’s angered the base on immigration and other hot-button issues. Far from pandering to the party’s tea party wing in order to get reelected, he’s challenging it head-on: Graham warns that the GOP is caught in a “death spiral” with minorities, says it needs to get real about climate change and defends his move to open debate on gun control legislation after a school massacre.
His legwork to protect his seat could serve as a model for other endangered incumbents looking to fend off more conservative challengers.
“There’s a head wind for all incumbents,” Graham, 58, said over a dinner of chicken livers and fried green tomatoes in nearby Charleston last week. “I’ve tried to insulate myself.”
The losses of GOP Sens. Bob Bennett of Utah in 2010 then Dick Lugar of Indiana two years later showed how longtime incumbents who look unbeatable can be upended in primaries by more conservative challengers.
“Perhaps I was not as concerned as I should have been about the challenge in my primary,” Lugar said in a recent interview.
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