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Sen. Graham’s challenge: Fill a court seat and save his own

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., listens at a hearing with the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. (Anna Moneymaker/New York Times, Pool via AP)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Few members of the Republican Party have taken a political journey as long as Lindsey Graham’s, from ridiculing Donald Trump as a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot” to becoming one of the president’s fiercest defenders in Congress, as well as a regular golf partner.

Graham has long been known to have flexible politics, and that has served him well in South Carolina for decades. But this November may be his toughest test yet as he seeks reelection and explains to voters how, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he will push for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee on the president’s aggressive timetable, when the senator was so clearly — even defiantly — opposed to that approach as recently as two years ago, even demanding that he be called out for hypocrisy if he switched.

He switched.

“The rules have changed as far as I’m concerned,” Graham said Saturday.

It falls to Graham, as committee chairman, to vet Trump’s pick to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and manage the spectacle of televised hearings on the nomination. It’s one of the most volatile tasks in all of politics, more so now with a pandemic raging, a country on edge, and the ideological tilt of the high court in the balance, perhaps for a generation.

And, Graham has Jaime Harrison to worry about.

The Democratic Senate candidate is running close to Graham, according to one recent poll, despite the conservative tilt of South Carolina, and is matching the three-term incumbent in fundraising that has yielded a total of more than $30 million apiece.

Harrison hopes to use the shifting Supreme Court stance against Graham, as does a pro-Harrison political action committee which, along with The Lincoln Project, is up with a $1 million ad buy aiming to use Graham’s own 2018 pledge to oppose future election-year confirmations to the court. The Lincoln Project is a group of current and former Republican officials looking to defeat Trump.

“If an opening comes in the last year of President Trump’s term, and the primary process has started, we’ll wait to the next election,” Graham said at an event hosted by The Atlantic magazine. Reminded that he was speaking on the record, Graham doubled down: “Yeah. Hold the tape.”

On Saturday, Harrison also posted video from a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting in 2016, where Graham declared, “If there’s a Republican president (elected) in 2016 and a vacancy occurs in the last year of the first term, you can say Lindsey Graham said, ‘Let’s let the next president, whoever it might be, make that nomination.'”

“My grandpa always said that a man is only as good as his word,” Harrison added on Twitter. “Senator Graham, you have proven your word is worthless.”

The allegation that he’s a flip-flopper isn’t new for Graham.

Over the years he has taken on and handily defeated primary challengers from the right who didn’t see him as conservative enough for South Carolina. Republicans control both legislative chambers in the state, and hold all statewide offices and most of the congressional seats. Graham was too conciliatory, critics argued, too ready to work out deals with Democrats on issues such as immigration alongside his longtime ally and friend, the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Graham explained some of that bipartisanship, including his votes in favor of Obama-era Supreme Court picks Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, by pointing to the consequences of election results.

A similar framework was invoked by Trump, who on Saturday in North Carolina signaled that he’d be willing to accept waiting for a vote on his nominee until the postelection congressional session: “We win an election, and those are the consequences.”

Part of Graham’s justification for pressing ahead is Democrats’ changing of the Senate rules to confirm more appeals court judges during President Barack Obama’s tenure. But what looms largest is the confirmation battle for the last Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. Graham says Democrats “conspired to destroy” Kavanaugh.

Kavanaugh, who denied allegations of sexual assault that were raised against him, was narrowly confirmed in 2018 after a blistering, partisan fight. Graham played a pivotal role, delivering a fiery, confirmation hearing defense of Kavanaugh that went viral. “What you want to do is destroy this guy’s life, hold this seat open and hope you win in 2020,” Graham said, his voice shaking.

That moment transformed Graham’s political arc, drawing praise from Trump, plaudits from conservatives and scorn from liberals now donating in droves to stop his reelection bid.

“It was just a complete low point in my career in the Senate, and I spoke up,” Graham said, describing Democrats’ scorn. “As I speak about it right now, the more I think about it, the more pissed I get,” he said this month during an event with Federalist Society members in South Carolina.

Trump has promised to put forward a female nominee for the Supreme Court seat this week, starting the process for Graham in the Senate. It may end up being Graham’s only chance to shepherd a nominee to the high court. When he became chairman in 2019, he said he would hand the reins back to Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley in the next Congress, a deal Grassley confirmed that year.

As he seeks a fourth Senate term, it’s clear that the consequences the Supreme Court battle could have on his own election are not far from Graham’s mind. In a tweet thread announcing his support for Trump’s nominating process Saturday, Graham cast Harrison, an associate Democratic National Committee chairman, as “a loyal foot soldier in the cause of the radical liberals to destroy America as we know it.”

Later, he tweeted that he was “dead set” on confirming Trump’s pick. At the end was a link to a fundraising page for Graham’s reelection bid.

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.

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