Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is a strong contender to be secretary of defense if the Republicans win the White House next year, but his bid for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination was snake-bit from the start.
Graham, who announced on Monday he was dropping out of the race, began his campaign six months ago with two strikes against him.
The former House member and close ally of Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain (R-AZ) was a quintessential government insider just at the moment when GOP voters were growing hungry for iconoclastic outsiders like Donald Trump and Ben Carson who knew little about government or policy but promised to shake things up.
A day after his formal announcement in early June, Graham released a roster of his South Carolina finance committee, which included 100 of the biggest names in the business and professional community. Graham was inadvertently making the same mistake that former Florida governor Jeb Bush made in trying to portray himself as a champion of the Republican establishment.
“Like Jeb Bush, Graham’s identity is establishment in a year when the Republican base simply doesn’t want that,” Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, said in an email. “At least Bush is at 2-4 percent in the polls. Graham is usually listed as 0 percent.”
The other problem, ironically, is that Graham was too far out in front of the rest of his party on the war in the Middle East. While the rest of the GOP field struggled to enunciate a substantive alternative to President Obama’s approach of mostly surgical air strikes, Graham identified the war on ISIS as the paramount issue of the day and proposed deploying tens of thousands of U.S. ground troops to the ongoing allied struggle in Iraq and Syria.
Graham, 60, a former Air Force trial lawyer, had been prescient in staking out his campaign position and prescribing a far more aggressive and risky military solution to the ISIS threat. But his hawkish positions seemed oddly out of step with the rest of his party – that is until the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., stunned the nation and suddenly made it imperative for the candidates to take tough stands.
With his narrow agenda and meager campaign war chest and organization, Graham floundered from the start. Because he could barely muster one percent support in the national polls and even trailed Trump and others in his home state of South Carolina, Graham was repeatedly consigned to the GOP “undercard” debates and was never able to achieve national prominence.
Meanwhile, Trump was eventually joined by Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and others in saber rattling and vows to decimate or even “carpet bomb” ISIS forces and other terrorist groups. Graham was one of the few GOP candidates willing to openly criticize Trump’s bombastic style and harsh, xenophobic stands on the war in the Middle East and immigration – especially his calls for barring Muslims from entering the country and rounding up and deporting millions of illegal immigrants.
"I believe Donald Trump is destroying the Republican Party's chances to win an election that we can't afford to lose," he said in a recent speech. "You think you're going to win an election with that kind of garbage?"
In the end, however, nothing Graham tried on the campaign trail – including vigorous campaigning in New Hampshire alongside McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee in recent days – worked for him.
“I’ve hit a wall here,” Graham told CNN today in explaining his decision to get out of the race. “My campaign has come to a point where I need to think of getting out and helping somebody else.”
“I think the nominee of our party is going to adopt my plan when it comes time to articulate how to destroy ISIS,” he said. “My biggest problem is a lot of people like what I say, but not many people hear it.”
In an interview broadcast today by NPR, President Obama singled out Graham as “one of the few who has been at least honest about suggesting ‘here’s something I would do that the President is not doing,’ he doesn’t just talk about being louder or sounding tougher in the process.”
Graham’s announcement he was suspending his campaign came on the same day as the deadline for him to remove his name from the Feb. 20 South Carolina primary ballot. By dropping out now, he avoids the embarrassment of getting clobbered in his home state primary early next year while positioning himself as a player whose endorsement will be eagerly sought by some of the other Republican candidates.
“Graham was the most entertaining candidate, but laughs do not equal votes,” Sabato added. “The real significance of his dropping out is that he removes the shackles from many South Carolina pols, who didn’t want to offend their senior senator. Now they’re free to endorse and work for the candidates who actually have a chance to win. South Carolina became a more important primary.”
He joins two other political insiders, former Texas governor Rick Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, in pulling out of the GOP presidential contest. Other GOP candidates badly trailing in the polls, including former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and former New York governor George Pataki, will feel mounting pressure to drop out after the Iowa and New Hampshire contests early next year.