After Months of N.H. Focus, Lindsey Graham Bows Out of Presidential Race

Dec 21, 2015

Sen. Lindsey Graham was a common sight on the New Hampshire presidential primary trail. But he failed to rally many voters to his side.
Credit Brady Carlson / NHPR

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham ended his presidential campaign this morning. A well-known voice in Republican foreign policy debates, and a frequent visitor to New Hampshire, Graham failed to catch on with voters here. NHPR’s Senior Editor for Politics Dan Barrick spoke with All Things Considered Host Peter Biello, to look back on Graham’s short-lived White House bid.

Biello: So Graham’s out. Though it’s not for lack of trying, at least not in New Hampshire.

Barrick: That’s certainly true. By some accounts he made the most campaign visits to the state this year, and he said again and again that his presidential hopes would live or die in New Hampshire. There were a few problems with that approach, not the least of which is – there are a lot of candidates this year banking on this “NH or bust” strategy: Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, to name a few.

The large, fractured GOP field this year certainly didn’t help Graham. He wasn’t the only establishment Republican mired in single digits in polls throughout the campaign.

But some of his positions, including his hawkish approach to foreign policy and his willingness to cut bipartisan deals with Democrats on immigration and other issues, set him at odds with the mood of many primary voters.

Graham did have one secret weapon in New Hampshire, didn’t he?

He did. Sen. John McCain, a two-time winner of the New Hampshire primary, good friends with Graham – the two team up on lots of foreign policy related legislation in the Senate. McCain was tireless, campaigning side by side with Graham though the summer and fall. And it wasn’t uncommon for McCain to get misty-eyed at some town hall or another, recalling his own, now legendary come from behind victories in the 2000 and 2008 primaries.

On the trail, Graham showed a bit of the McCain wit, the happy warrior vibe. But Graham was no McCain – in his ability to connect with voters, or the media, for that matter.

And again, McCain’s playbook for success in New Hampshire – loads of events, up and down the state, with lots of up-close voter contact – is one that lots of other candidates are reading from this year.

So did Graham have any impact on the 2016 race?

To some extent. He was the first candidate to really criticize Donald Trump for some of his more controversial statements, about Mexican immigrants or other issues. He called Trump “crazy” months ago – at a time when much of the rest of the Republican field still seemed unsure how to confront the Trump phenomena.

And, as I mentioned, his muscular views on the need for American military intervention has a new relevance given the events in Paris, San Bernardino and elsewhere in recent weeks. It just seems Graham was not the messenger voters were looking for.  

So where do Graham’s supporters go now?

Well, I don’t think he had that many backers to spread around. And in terms of campaign staff and support in New Hampshire, Graham had a couple of prominent names on board: Former state senator Gary Lambert, and Peter Spaulding, a member of the original McCain crew from back in 1999 – to name two. But, in all honestly, Graham didn’t have much of an infrastructure to bequeath to another candidate.

One thing though: Today was the deadline for candidates to have their names removed from the South Carolina primary ballot, Graham’s from South Carolina, so dropping out of the race today now frees him up to play a big role in his home state – which incidentally, will host the third early contest, less than two weeks after New Hampshire. Graham’s a respected figure in South Carolina politics, and his endorsement could mean something.

Closer to home, one thing may be interesting to watch is what this may mean for Kelly Ayotte. Ayotte is a close ally of Graham’s in the Senate. Her endorsement is obviously the last big prize in New Hampshire for the Republican presidential contenders.

Does Graham’s exit free up Ayotte to throw her support behind another candidate? Lots of folks are watching.