His transformation has sparked conspiracy theories about his motives. In December 2017, author Sarah Kendzior suggested that Trump may be blackmailing Graham with information obtained from Russia’s 2016 hack of the senator’s emails. MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle echoed those suspicions last week, saying, “Donald Trump or somebody knows something pretty extreme about Lindsey Graham.”
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a freshman member of Congress, then made headlines for similarly stating, without evidence, that Graham is compromised. As she tweeted Tuesday:
They got to him, he is compromised! https://t.co/m8sB3EmElg— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) January 16, 2019
But you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to understand Graham’s behavior. It’s obvious what Trump has on Graham: his voters. Graham’s criticism of Trump during the 2016 campaign made him remarkably unpopular among Republicans in his home state — and thus highly vulnerable to a primary challenger for his Senate seat in 2020.
The graph above shows that Graham’s approval rating among South Carolina Republicans declined by 30 percentage points from fall 2014 to 2016. In the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Survey (CCES), nearly two-thirds of Palmetto State Republicans approved of Graham’s job performance. Two years later, only one-third did.
By contrast, 69 percent of South Carolina Republicans in the 2016 CCES approved of Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Graham’s colleague, with only 6 percent disapproving of the junior senator’s job performance. Nearly 90 percent of Republicans have approved of Trump throughout his presidency.
It’s hardly a secret, then, why Graham has changed his tune on Trump. He famously bet against Trump’s electoral chances during the 2016 campaign, tweeting, “If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed ……. and we will deserve it.” That miscalculation meant he had a lot of work to do to make amends with the president’s Republican Party.
The senator’s efforts have paid off. According to polling from Winthrop University, Graham’s approval rating among South Carolina Republicans increased from 51 percent in April 2018 to 72 percent after his emotional defense of Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination in October.
So it’s time to put the baseless conspiracy theories about Graham to rest. He is simply acting like a strategic politician, who is politically compromised by the fact that Trump is much more popular among Republicans in his home state than he is.