Senator Lindsey Graham on Friday blamed the structure of the GOP debates and Republican voters’ current attitudes on Washington as reasons why his unsuccessful 2016 presidential campaign was never able to garner any momentum.
Graham spoke with South Carolina Radio Network on Friday and did a postmortem on his presidential bid, which was never able to get more than 3 percent support outside his home state.
“(My campaign’s) biggest problem was I could never find a way to get on the big stage,” Graham said during the 15-minute interview. “National polling early on knocked me out. I’ve never run for president before. I’m from a small state. I don’t have a TV show. I’m not from a political family. So it was hard to break through.”
Graham believed the Republican Party made a “mistake” in basing its main debate field on poll position. The senator never participated in the debates, instead he was relegated with other low-performing candidates to the earlier “undercard” events that inevitably had lower ratings. “I just didn’t see a way to break out without getting on the ‘big stage,'” he said. “And I didn’t see a way of getting on the ‘big stage.'”
He still insisted his campaign “hit above our weight” on foreign policy. The senator consistently called for US troops to be “on the ground” in Iraq and Syria to support Mideast nations in their fight against the Islamic State, even though the proposal was not popular with Republican politicians or voters. After the group was linked to attacks in Paris last fall, however, other Republicans became more open to the idea.
It’s unclear if high-profile air time would have helped Graham, however. The senator admitted he and other “establishment” Republicans fell victim to a conservative base that is seeking to enact change in Washington through other “outsider” candidates. The South Carolina native had a higher disapproval rating nationally than approval by the time he dropped out of the race last month.
He admitted that most in politics had underestimated Donald Trump. “When Trump got in and he started throwing all these bombs and took all the oxygen out of the room, the whole frustration with a broken system took on an energy,” he said. “We started going backward on immigration, saying things I think make it almost impossible to win with Hispanics. And that dynamic wasn’t just against me, it was everybody else associated with the governing groups.”
However, Graham insisted neither current poll frontrunner Trump nor second-plane candidate US Sen. Ted Cruz would beat Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton in a general election. “Mr. Trump, I think, has made it almost impossible to win 270 electoral votes. He’s got an 81 percent disapproval rating with Hispanics and with growth potential,” the senator said, citing a Washington Post poll conducted in July. “The way he’s run his campaign has been very incendiary and I just think Hillary Clinton would eat his lunch.”
“Ted Cruz is a first-term senator who keeps saying if we were just more conservative and more harsh, we could get our way. I never thought shutting down the government would lead to President Obama agreeing to repeal Obamacare. That probably helped Ted with our base, but it never made sense to me and probably hurt our party overall. He’s more of an ideologue than he is a conservative.”
He insisted a “good solid” Republican nominee could beat Clinton because “she is a flawed candidate.”
Graham said he’s not decided yet if he will endorse before South Carolina’s Feb. 20 primary, even remarking that his endorsement could harm the candidate due to his own low poll numbers.
Despite the firm rejection of establishment candidates by GOP voters, however, Graham insisted Republicans in Washington need to continue working with Democrats when necessary to prove they can “get things done.” But he strongly opposed brinksmanship politics that pushed for a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood and “Obamacare” funding.
“But those folks who hate President Obama so much and want to neutralize his presidency because (Republicans) have the House and Senate, they’ve been encouraged by some people running for president in a fashion I think is counterproductive and not good for the country. What would we say if a Democratic firebrand got the Democrats to shut down the entire government unless (former President George W.) Bush agreed to repeal the Bush tax cuts? This process is basically not recognizing… that there’s limits to governing power if you don’t have the White House.”