Graham touts Trump loy­alty as he seeks 4th Se­nate term

The Buffalo News - - WASHINGTON NEWS - By Robert Costa

MYR­TLE BEACH, S.C. – Sen. Lind­sey Graham, R-S.C., kicked off his re­elec­tion cam­paign here over the week­end by hav­ing Vice Pres­i­dent Pence – per­haps Pres­i­dent Trump’s most loyal ally – un­der­score his own loy­alty to the pres­i­dent.

“I have watched him stand in sol­i­dar­ity with Pres­i­dent Trump and our ad­min­is­tra­tion,” Pence said Satur­day at a beach­front ho­tel.

Ear­lier, Graham as­sured the more than 700 at­ten­dees – many of them wear­ing red “Make Amer­ica Great Again” hats – that his “No. 1” pri­or­ity is Trump’s re-elec­tion.

“I’m go­ing to be a good ally to this pres­i­dent and be his part­ner,” he said.

Twenty months be­fore vot­ers head to the polls, Graham is start­ing his cam­paign for a fourth Se­nate term early – and do­ing ev­ery­thing he can to link him­self to the pres­i­dent.

For Graham, the full em­brace of Trump is, in part, an ef­fort to stave off pri­mary chal­lengers, par­tic­u­larly some­one who could be tempted to run against him as a Trump-style in­sur­gent.

It is also a sign that Graham wants to en­er­gize Trump’s core vot­ers in this tra­di­tion­ally red state while Democrats try to build on their re­cent gains. Democrats scored a vic­tory in Novem­ber in South Carolina’s 1st Con­gres­sional District – a district won by Trump by more than 13 points in 2016.

Jaime Harrison, the first black chair­man of the state Demo­cratic Party and a for­mer aide to Rep. James Cly­burn, D-S.C., is ex­plor­ing a Se­nate run and has been en­cour­aged by na­tional party lead­ers. Harrison’s cam­paign would prob­a­bly at­tract sig­nif­i­cant at­ten­tion from the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial pri­mary con­tenders mak­ing fre­quent stops in South Carolina, an early vot­ing state.

“Lind­sey un­der­stands that this is not a slam dunk for him,” Harrison said in an in­ter­view Sun­day. “The re­frain th­ese days is: What’s hap­pened to Lind­sey? He’s won in the past with a coali­tion of coun­try-club Repub­li­cans, in­de­pen­dents and some mod­er­ate or con­ser­va­tive Democrats. But he’s lost some of those mid­dle-of-the-road vot­ers.” As Pence’s mo­tor­cade trav­eled through small towns, with Graham rid­ing along, it was greeted by small crowds wav­ing Amer­i­can flags.

There were scattered groups of protesters, too, hold­ing posters urg­ing At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam Barr to re­lease spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller’s com­plete re­port on Rus­sian interference in the 2016 cam­paign and Trump’s con­duct.

But be­fore Graham turns to the gen­eral elec­tion, he is fo­cused on shoring up his Repub­li­can sup­port – and lock­ing down his party’s nom­i­na­tion.

While Graham is close with Trump and a reg­u­lar golf part­ner to the pres­i­dent, he was a once a sharp-tongued critic.

He also has a long his­tory of ir­ri­tat­ing con­ser­va­tives with his in­de­pen­dent streak and his at­tempts to pass bi­par­ti­san im­mi­gra­tion leg­is­la­tion with Sen. John Mc­Cain, R-Ariz.

In 2014, Graham faced six lesser­known Repub­li­can chal­lengers in his Se­nate pri­mary race but ul­ti­mately won com­fort­ably in a year when the tea party move­ment didn’t score many up­sets.

By en­list­ing Pence for his cam­paign’s launch – and promis­ing his sup­port­ers this week­end that Trump will come to stump for him later this year – Graham is aim­ing to scare off po­ten­tial ri­vals.

A Winthrop Uni­ver­sity poll re­leased in March showed Graham with 74 per­cent ap­proval rat­ing among state Repub­li­cans – up from 51 per­cent a year ago.

The crowd for Graham at the Em­bassy Suites in Myr­tle Beach was a mi­cro­cosm of Trump’s events in the South: older and white, veer­ing from Repub­li­cans in navy blaz­ers to ac­tivists in T-shirts.

Even their sound­tracks aligned: Graham’s cam­paign played “Sym­pa­thy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones, fol­lowed by a soar­ing opera song – a playlist sim­i­lar to the one at Trump’s arena ral­lies.

Later Satur­day, Pence and Graham flew to­gether on Air Force Two to Greenville, S.C., joined by South Carolina’s Gov. Henry McMaster, an­other avowed Trump ally in the GOP, to speak at a Bap­tist church in the area.

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