With an Eye on South Carolina, Lindsey Graham Takes Aim at Chuck Hagel

The South Carolina senator's crusade against fellow Republican Chuck Hagel may seem inexplicable, but it's about defending himself from a 2014 primary challenge, reports Patricia Murphy.

Sen. Lindsey Graham put the White House on notice Sunday that he will block confirmation votes for Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary and John Brennan to be the Director of the CIA until he gets a tick-tock of President Obama's activities on the night of the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. His pronouncement of "no confirmation without information" Sunday on CBS's Face the Nation marks the third different filibuster threat Graham has issued tied to Hagel's nomination

Not coincidentally, the string of scorching statements aimed at the administration has come as Graham prepares for a possible 2014 primary challenge for his Senate seat in South Carolina, a challenge that has yet to materialize.

Graham—who’d previously threatened to filibuster Hagel's nomination unless he received details about his former Republican Senate colleagues paid speeches, and testimony from Sec. Leon Panetta about the Benghazi attacks (which Panetta delivered last week)—has also declared Hagel "clueless" about Iran policy, asserted that Hillary Clinton "got away with murder" related to her handling of the attacks, and denounced Hagel's own performance at his confirmation hearing as "disturbing."

That tough talk has coincided with an almost deafening silence from Tea Party Republicans in the Palmetto state, who once censured Graham for “bipartisanship that continues to weaken the Republican brand and tarnish the ideals of freedom” and in 2010 constructed a wing tip-wearing effigy of the senator that they flushed down a fake toilet.

Graham's offenses at the time were varied and numerous-- an enthusiasm for comprehensive immigration reform that locals dubbed "Grahamnesty" and that he is taking up again with Sen. Marco Rubio; a willingness to engage with the White House and then-Sen. John Kerry on climate change legislation; and his approval of the president's two nominees to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. When Graham became the only Republican on the Judiciary Committee to approve Kagan in 2010, he did so praising her as "smart and funny, which goes a long way in my book."

But that was then and this is now, and Graham is taking a much dimmer view of President Obama's nominees, no matter how charming they may or may not be. A former staffer for Graham says the senator's aggressive tack against Hagel and Brennan since the Benghazi attacks is just Graham being Graham. "I think he's just really angry. He has sent requests to the White House and doesn't think they're being forthcoming," the former aide said. "Until they are, he's going to use the leverage he has as a senator, which is advice and consent."

But LaDonna Ryggs, the chairman of the Spartanburg County, S.C., Republican Party, volunteered Graham's performance in the Benghazi hearings as evidence of his strength on defense, an area she says is crucial for South Carolina conservatives evaluating him for a third term.

"He's very strong on the military, extremely strong on Israel, and there's no better friend to the pro-life movement," Ryggs said, predicting that Republicans will stick with Graham as their nominee in 2014. "They can't afford the luxury of choosing a purist who is with them on 100 percent of the issues—they're not going to get that. They need somebody with a proven track record and that's Lindsey."

But Graham has remained a target for conservative groups like the Club for Growth, which has had mixed results in mounting primary races against incumbent Republicans, including the botched attempt to knock out Indiana’s Richard Lugar, only to see a Democrat win the seat in the end.

“Looking to the horizon of 2014, you know, the sun may rise over South Carolina,” Club for Growth President Chris Chocola told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast in September. “But we’ll see what the race is. We need to have something better to offer.”

So far, far-right Republicans have declined to offer their services in South Carolina. State Sen. Tom Davis has taken a pass on the race, while Sen. Tim Scott, the great hope for conservatives to unseat Graham, was appointed to replace Tea Party darling Jim DeMint, who resigned from the Senate to lead the Heritage Foundation.

And a PPP poll in December showed Graham's once-vulnerable position with Palmetto state Republicans has become downright healthy, with a 66 percent approval rating among GOP voters. That strength along with a $4.5 million war chest seem to have inoculated Graham from a serious challenge for now. "I don't know that I would call him impermeable, but he just about is," Ryggs says.

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Another impermeable Republican in Washington looks to be Chuck Hagel. While he still needs 60 votes to surmount a Graham filibuster, a spokeswoman for the Armed Services committee tells the Daily Beast that Graham's threats will not stop chairman Carl Levin's plan to hold a vote in the committee as soon as possible.

And despite Graham’s complaints about the former Nebraska senator, the White House is standing by its man. Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council, said Sunday, "We believe the Senate should act swiftly to confirm John Brennan and Sen. Hagel. These are critical national security positions and individual members shouldn't play politics with their nominations.