SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- When Sen. Lindsey Graham received a major endorsement last week from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the setting was, from a campaign-optics perspective, nearly perfect.
Graham, joined by representatives from the national and regional arms of the organization, stood in a vast warehouse of a local manufacturer, where he was flanked by supporters holding signs. But as Graham began to speak, a driving rain pounded the warehouse roof, drowning out all other noise. The Republican senator had no microphone, and so he did his best to yell out his remarks.
Had Graham been facing a competitive challenge to his re-election this year, the inclement weather might have ruined an important campaign event. But Graham isn't, and the soggy audio didn't matter.
Instead, Graham, counter to the early prognostications of many, has quelled any potential threats from Tea Party insurgents and, two months ahead of the Republican primary, is cruising to a third term in the Senate -- still gleefully tackling those controversial topics that might have made him vulnerable in the first place.
Graham is in this position by no accident. Wary of other incumbents who have not prepared for competitive re-election campaigns and lost, Graham and his campaign team have spent the intervening years raising money and shoring up support among South Carolina's political class -- all but guaranteeing Graham's path to victory.
Graham's longtime campaign manager, Scott Farmer, recalled a motto beloved by former South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond to describe Graham's approach: “Senator Thurmond had a saying: You always run like you're behind and take nothing for granted.' Sen. Graham has always taken that advice to heart and run very aggressive campaigns.”
Now, while his Republican opponents scramble to scrape together campaign donations and support, Graham has been hosting relaxed barbecues for supporters across the state, free of charge.
“You serve people free barbecue, and they will come,” Graham said, grinning, at a recent event in Simpsonville, S.C., where aides had just added another table to squeeze in the last few of a 130-person crowd.
Graham’s comfortable lead in this election also has afforded him the opportunity to speak out early and often, even at home in South Carolina, about his stances that might be controversial among the party’s conservative base.
“If [Republicans] get the Senate, we can't repeal Obamacare, because the president would veto any bill to repeal it,” Graham said matter-of-factly in Simpsonville. “But you know what we can do? We can chip away at it.”
A full repeal of Obamacare is still very much in vogue for many conservative Republicans, but Graham was forthright about the facets of the health care law he supports -- allowing children to remain on their parents' plan until age 26, for example, and providing insurance for people with pre-existing conditions.
Republicans, Graham continued, cannot merely oppose the health care law, but need to propose alternatives to it.
“Remember the Contract With America?” Graham said, referring to the mission statement released in 1994 by the GOP. “Aren't you wishing that your party would put down on paper what we're for, and not just what we're against?”
Regarding other potential political third rails, Graham was just as frank.
“Solving problems is not a sin,” Graham told the Washington Examiner.
At the same time, some of Graham's pet issues are still bread-and-butter for the conservative base; for example, he hasn't let up on asking questions about the September 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.
“Let me tell you, [former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton] can be beat, and one of the reasons she can be beat is because it was her job to take care of these people,” Graham said.
Other Republican senators facing re-election this year have tailored their primary messages much more narrowly to avoid any hint of controversy, even in the face of negligible primary threats.
If Graham were in trouble, he might have done the same. But his campaign has raised more than $11.6 million since he was last re-elected in 2008, finishing the most recent quarter with $6.85 million on hand, and he has consistently polled leagues ahead of his closest Republican challengers.
The current-day dynamic has echoes of 2002, when Thurmond retired and his Senate seat came open. Many people expected a crowded field of Republicans jockeying to take his place -- but, by that time, Graham, then a member of Congress, had secured support from the entire roster of the state's top GOP finance gurus. No other Republican could hope to organize a credible challenge, and Graham ran unopposed for his party's nomination.
This year, some Palmetto State conservative activists were determined to find a serious challenger to Graham, and made no secret of their desire to recruit some Republican members of the state's congressional delegation, including Reps. Trey Gowdy and Mick Mulvaney. Both declined.
“The 30 percent of the Republicans who don’t like him really don’t like him, but generally speaking Lindsey is very highly regarded back home,” Mulvaney told Politico last year.
Without a strong Republican challenger to Graham, conservative outside groups stayed away, even as they have loudly supported Tea Party candidates taking on Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi, Pat Roberts in Kansas, or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.
Some might say Graham dodged a political bullet. But, as he reflected on his political good fortune last week in Simpsonville, he was happily unsurprised by the arc the race has traced.
“This is a business, and I have a lot of support here in South Carolina,” Graham told the Examiner. “I’m not the path of least resistance if you want to get ahead.”