Why it is horrible that Lindsey Graham is still a senator

An underfunded challenger came out of nowhere to unexpectedly topple a Republican leader who was more reliable pushing war, warrantless wiretapping and Wall Street than fighting big government.

Even friendly observers and the tea party candidate’s own supporters were surprised by his victory, fueled in part by opposition to amnesty and fear the incumbent would cut an immigration deal with President Barack Obama and the Democrats.

If you had sketched the scenario even six months ago, I would have thought you would be describing Lindsey Graham getting bounced from the Senate by South Carolina Republican primary voters.

Graham is almost certainly heading back to the Senate for his third term, shellacking his nearest primary opponent by 41 points and taking 56 percent of the vote in a six-way race. Instead Eric Cantor became the first sitting House majority leader defeated since 1899 and by far the biggest scalp taken by a conservative primary challenger this year.

Cantor was no constitutional conservative. In addition to his immigration machinations, he voted for Medicare Part D and TARP, tried to beat back NSA surveillance reforms and fretted about imaginary “isolationism” within the Republican Party.

In his foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute, Cantor argued U.S. troops should have stayed in Iraq and must remain in Afghanistan. (Separately, he favored them going to Syria.) While he stopped short of saying they should next be dispatched to Iran, Cantor took a predictably hawkish line there too. He admitted such military interventions “cannot be done on the cheap,” necessitating more federal spending.

The House majority leader learned from Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat that Republicans needed to have an economic message tailored to people who don’t own their businesses, but learned nothing from the more than $1 trillion Iraq war.

Dave Brat, the man who beat Cantor in the primary, opposes “too big to fail.” He opposes corporate welfare, the Export-Import Bank and crony capitalism. He’s against warrantless surveillance, subsidies, amnesty and bailouts.

This race, like Chris McDaniel’s win in the first round against Thad Cochran in Mississippi, was a needed shot in the arm for the tea party. But are Cantor and Cochran really as bad as the lawmaker Quin Hillyer described in The American Spectator as “the worst Republican senator?” Cantor was possibly floating an immigration deal with the president. Graham was out front partnering on immigration legislation with Ted Kennedy and John McCain.

Conservatives of goodwill can disagree about immigration policy. But civil disagreement wasn’t good enough for Graham. He said of Republicans on the other side of the issue—in a speech to the National Council of La Raza, no less—“We’re going to tell the bigots to shut up.”

Shut up is frequently how Graham explains. This was his part of his argument in favor of allowing indefinite detention, in violation of Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, in the National Defense Authorization Act: “When they say, ‘I want my lawyer, you tell them: ‘Shut up. You don’t get a lawyer.’”

Graham insists such tough talk would be confined to enemy combatants. But he also considers the United States homeland a “battlefield” in a war that has no geographic boundaries and no defined endpoint.

The senator is the leading opponent of any attempt to rethink the Republican approach to foreign policy and civil liberties, suggesting the innocent have nothing to fear from warrantless surveillance and that talking about the extrajudicial killing of Americans is a waste of time.

While Graham gives conservatives and libertarians inside the GOP no quarter, he frequently ingratiates himself to liberal Democrats. He called Ted Kennedy “one of the most principled men I’ve ever met” and went out of his way to write an essay for Time magazine praising Hillary Clinton—the likely 2016 Democratic presidential nominee—as a “smart, prepared, serious senator.”

Graham voted to confirm both of President Obama’s nominees to the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. Sotomayor voted to uphold Obamacare. Graham vowed to break Grover Norquist’s pledge against tax increases “for the good of the country,” arguing it would help pass entitlement reform (his gambit didn’t help advance George W. Bush’s Social Security plan in 2005).

When Rand Paul ran ads against swing-state Democratic senators who voted against his amendment cutting foreign aid to Egypt, Pakistan and Libya, Graham defended the Democrats. “Foreign relations are not a Democrat or Republican issue, they are an American issue,” he said.

That holds true when Obama wants to bomb Syria, but not when he wants to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Give Graham his due: he does his homework politically and knows the state of South Carolina. Many of his primary challengers had the right ideas, but no money or strategy. Lee Bright, the state senator who came in a distant second with 15 percent of the vote, is a committed liberty Republican.

So is Nancy Mace, who on paper was the candidate who could have done the most to counter Graham’s military advantage. The first woman graduate of the Citadel, Mace was well positioned to take the fight to Graham on foreign policy and Pentagon spending. It didn’t happen—she finished 50 points behind the senator.

Unlike Cantor, who famously spent more on steak dinners than Brat did on his entire campaign, Graham not only piled up a huge fundraising advantage but spent the money wisely. Where Cantor had his eyes on the speaker’s gavel, Graham kept his focus on how to clear the primary field in South Carolina of Republican officeholders. Once no one with a clean shot at Graham jumped in, this kept groups like the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks out of the race.

South Carolina has been a Republican establishment stronghold in the past. But several Republicans have been elected recently who have quietly built up strong constitutionally conservative, libertarian-leaning voting records—including Mark Sanford and Mick Mulvaney at the congressional level. (Though some conservatives are currently unhappy with Mulvaney.)

Greg Brannon may have failed to force a runoff in North Carolina—and I had some criticism of his campaign—but at minimum, the fight against Graham should have been as competitive as Brannon’s bout with Thom Tillis. The party had much less to lose in the general election.

You can’t win them all and the Tea Party needs to unseat only one or two major Republican incumbents each cycle to influence the rest of the party.

But even after attaining this goal, this is a case where conservatives will long lament the one that got away.