Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is on the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who sits on two key defense committees, appears poised to cruise to re-election in South Carolina after a shaky start to his campaign.
Polls show the Senate Armed Services and Appropriations defense subcommittee member far ahead of his rivals for the GOP nomination, and experts say Graham’s Democratic opponent would need a miracle to stage an upset in the Palmetto State’s general election.
And that is good news for US weapons manufacturers. Campaign-finance data shows Graham is among the sector’s favorite senators.
Graham launched his re-election bid last year amid a slew of political punditry that he would face a tea party challenger from his right. Many political analysts ranked Graham as among their most vulnerable incumbents up for re-election this year.
“At one point, a lot of people thought he was vulnerable to attack from the tea party,” said David Morris, the senior political editor at Kiplinger, a consulting firm. “But I think that’s gone away.
“I think he’ll win the primary and the general election,” Morris added.
Several notable polls show Graham with a comfortable lead on his GOP rivals as the June primary approaches. What’s more, Graham’s favorability ratings among likely voters are ticking upward.
RealClearPolitics.com, which tracks all congressional races, lists Graham’s re-election bid in its “safe races” category. The organization expects the two-term senator to again win the seat.
An April poll by South Carolina’s Winthrop University found nearly 40 percent of polled adults in South Carolina gave Graham “a thumbs up.” Importantly for Graham, the Winthrop poll concluded his approval and disapproval ratings are “more closely divided” than in previous polls.
Since the last version of the Winthrop survey was conducted last October, Graham’s approval ratings among registered voters climbed 2.2 percent, with the same rating among the general population increasing by 3.1 percent. (The poll’s margin of error is +/- 3.3 percent.)
Graham’s solid showing is good news for the defense sector.
To be sure, his near-constant drumbeat for larger annual Pentagon budgets and a large and well equipped force, along with his interventionist US foreign policy philosophy, make him one of their loudest proponents on Capitol Hill.
The defense-aerospace sector ranks 17th among US industries that have given to his campaign committee during the 2014 election cycle, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics and posted on OpenSecrets.org.
Collectively, the defense-aerospace sector has donated $85,193 to his campaign committee this cycle, according to the center.
That places Graham third among defense-aerospace donations to all senators in 2014, behind only Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee Chairman Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. ($120,050), and Senate Majority Whip Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas ($130,950).
The campaign-finance data show one of the sector’s favorite senators is on track to secure a third term — and likely keep his seat on the two defense panels. Loren Thompson, Lexington Institute COO and a defense-sector consultant, said Graham’s clout in the Senate would only grow in his third term.
“Assuming he secures re-election, Graham will return to the Senate with enhanced influence, particularly on military matters,” Thompson said. “If the GOP takes control of the upper chamber, the McCain-Graham-Ayotte triumvirate will be the center of gravity in Republican defense plans, shaping the goals of the entire party.
“With Russia on the march and the Chinese military threat looking over-stated, Graham may use his clout to question the timing of a Pacific pivot,” Thompson said. “He certainly will be a voice for greater global engagement than the current administration has favored, both for practical and humanitarian reasons.”
One reason Graham likely will be back on Senate Armed Services and the Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee is because it’s part of a wider national trend.
“From what we have seen so far, the tea party is making less noise about incumbent Republicans than it did in 2012. Then, the conventional wisdom was Republicans would take over the Senate and the Democrats had to defend more seats,” Morris said. “But the Republicans nominated some awful candidates — there’s just no other way to say it.
“So the Democrats actually picked up seats,” he said. “This year, it really seems as though the tea party has learned a lesson. They seem to be dialing their attacks on Republican incumbents back a bit.”
Morris said the state’s political demographics and an oddity about American politics are other reasons Graham is likely to cruise to re-election.
“In a state more in play for Democrats, his general election might be more of an issue,” Morris said. “You’re still hearing some attacks against Senator Graham, but it’s just too much of a red state.
“And never discount the power of incumbency,” Morris said. “People like Graham for the same reasons reporters do: he’s approachable and likes to engage on issues.” ■