Why Lindsey Graham's Support for Immigration Reform Isn't Popular in South Carolina

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CHARLESTON, S.C. – Avery and Susan Burns don’t like the immigration-reform bill in the U.S. Senate one bit. “People come here illegally, and now we’re giving them the red carpet,” grumbled Avery, a 71-year-old doctor, climbing the steps of the public library on a recent morning.

His disgust is making him reconsider his support for home-state Sen. Lindsey Graham, the only Republican sponsor of the bill who is up for reelection in 2014. Yet Susan said she’d still vote for Graham because he’s a “strong Republican,” recalling his leadership during former President Clinton’s impeachment.

The retired couple’s reaction shows why Graham has reason to be on his toes, but not to panic.

Immigration reform is not popular in this heavily conservative state, which followed Arizona’s lead and passed a tough crackdown on illegal immigrants two years ago. An anti-immigration group, Numbers USA, began airing a radio ad in February that demands, “Who elected Graham to demand amnesty and welfare for millions of illegal aliens?”  Since then, his approval rating among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents has dropped from 72 percent to 58 percent, according to the Winthrop Poll. A pro-reform group that put up a statewide television spot to give Graham political cover doesn’t even mention immigration, suggesting that even the bill’s advocates see it as a tough issue to explain.

But Graham’s harsh criticism this week of President Obama’s response to the acts of terrorism in Benghazi, Libya, and at the Boston Marathon shows why he can’t be underestimated. “With all due respect, Mr. President, Benghazi and Boston are compelling examples of how our national security systems have deteriorated on your watch,” Graham said in a written statement. “If Benghazi is not an example of system failure before, during, and after the attack, what would be? If Boston is not an example of a pre-9/11 stovepiping mentality, what would be?” Graham has spent the past decade building a reputation as one of the biggest military hawks in the Senate, an image that serves as a conservative counterweight to his role in immigration reform.

“He doesn’t have to win on immigration. His larger profile is on national security, and that’s not going to change,” said Charleston-based Republican strategist Jim Dyke. “He can do what he needs to do on immigration as long as he keeps after President Obama.”

Graham isn’t taking anything for granted. He raised more than $1.1 million in the past three months, leaving him with nearly $5.4 million in the bank. The only Senate incumbent with more money is Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Mega-donor Sheldon Adelson hosted a fundraiser for Graham on Tuesday in Las Vegas. Challenges may come from state Sen. Lee Bright or Nancy Mace, the first woman to graduate from the Citadel, but neither has made a bid against the sitting senator official.

“You can’t beat somebody with nobody,” noted Carol Fowler, former chairwoman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. “Even if someone got in the race today and started raising money, they wouldn’t catch up for another 10 years.”

Graham has weathered blowback from anti-immigrant and other conservative groups before. When he championed a similar proposal during President Bush’s second term to allow illegal immigrants to earn citizenship, talk-show host Rush Limbaugh mocked him as “Lindsey Grahamnesty.”  A Republican challenger, Buddy Witherspoon, ran an ad featuring photos of people crossing the border and a narrator proclaiming, “Gracias, Lindsey Graham!”  Graham trounced him in the 2008 primary. "There were many people who came after Lindsey Graham on immigration, but he didn’t back down, and he stuck to his guns," said Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for the senator.

Looking to 2014, the pro-immigration, the Facebook founder-backed group running an ad on Graham’s behalf, Americans for a Conservative Direction, is specifically aimed at courting Republicans. It portrays Graham as Obama’s worst nemesis on health care, economic policy, and the Keystone XL pipeline. “Change you can believe in, after this health care bill debacle, has now become an empty slogan,” says Graham in one clip used in the ad. “And it’s really been replaced by seedy Chicago politics when you think about it.”

Such attacks are welcomed by conservatives in South Carolina, where the latest Winthrop Poll found that more people disapprove (47 percent) than approve (43 percent) of the president. Graham is also receiving some political cover from Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, one of the most popular Republicans in the country, who is leading the reform campaign in the media. “Sen. Rubio is so well regarded and so convincing on television, I think that will mitigate the fallout,” said Karen Floyd, former chairwoman of the South Carolina Republican Party. Evangelicals, who made up 40 percent of the South Carolina vote when Graham was reelected in 2008, are increasingly speaking in favor of allowing illegal immigrants to work and live in the U.S. without fear of deportation.

Recent focus groups of GOP primary voters in Greenville, S.C., and Des Moines, Iowa, also suggest waning resistance to immigration reform—if the bill’s complex provisions are explained. Republican pollster John McLaughlin, who led the groups of self-identified conservatives, said there was overwhelming support for tightening border security and withholding public assistance from illegal immigrants, which the bill requires. Participants were unfamiliar with the bill’s “pathway to citizenship”—the process of paying taxes and fines, learning English, and passing a background check before obtaining a green card.

“They didn’t know what that term meant, but they know what amnesty is, and they don’t like it,” McLaughlin said. “Once you tell them about the process and that it could take 10 years or more, they generally supported it. It’s really a battle to get there, and say this is a Republican plan and define it.”

Interviews with voters this week in Charleston found most were skeptical that the bill would increase border patrols and require illegal immigrants to go to the back of the line. “Oh, Lindsey,” sighed 21-year-old Ken Fipps, a Republican activist who recently graduated from Charleston Southern University. “He’s not as conservative as most of South Carolina. Citizenship for illegal immigrants? I don’t know that we should go that far.”

Graham enjoys good will, however, even from voters who disagree with him on immigration. Mary Renau, who lives in the Canterbury retirement community in Charleston, said, “He speaks his mind and let people know what he thinks and what needs to be done.”

“Even if I disagree with him,” piped in her neighbor, Ada Josey. “Everyone is pretty positive about closing the border.”

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