WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Lindsey Graham is no less independent and outspoken as a first-term senator from South Carolina than he was during eight tempestuous years in the House. He also is a golfer, and uses a metaphor from the links to describe his political discomfort. His fellow Republicans remind him of a tournament golfer who ignores the leader board and thinks he is ahead going into the 17th and 18th holes, when he really is trailing.
"It's like we think we'll get by with pars on the last two holes when we really need birdies," Graham told me. He referred to the 2006 midterm election, where he sees a real danger of Republicans losing control of both houses in Congress for the first time since the 1992 elections. Such foreboding reflects Graham's fear that demographic changes in America will extend beyond this year's elections and return the Republican Party to minority status.
Graham's remedy to avert both short-term and long-term disaster stresses Republicans returning to fiscal integrity by seriously cutting spending -- a goal to which his GOP colleagues give lip service. He also advocates policies on entitlements, the environment and immigration that he feels are necessary for the party's health but find little Republican support on Capitol Hill and only mixed backing at the White House.
It is not merely lack of enthusiasm for Graham's agenda. Since talking to the senator, I have tested his theories with a dozen prominent Republicans. All feel the tide has turned for them over the last month. Each of them claims that the American voter will stick with the Republicans after taking a good look at Democrats, a mindset that often is a precursor of defeat. To follow Graham's metaphor, perhaps they are not reading the real leader board of American politics.
Republicans surely seem to need some birdies to keep Senate seats in 2006. Rick Santorum remains far behind in Pennsylvania. Conrad Burns is in trouble in Montana. Jim Talent trails in Missouri. Mike DeWine is threatened by a noxious Republican atmosphere in Ohio. Lincoln Chafee is endangered in Democratic Rhode Island. Jon Kyl faces a surprisingly tough race in Arizona. Despite excellent candidates in Minnesota and Washington state, no Republican challenging for a Democratic-held Senate seat is in the lead. Thus, a six-seat takeover capturing the Senate is possible.
This is of special concern for Republicans because the third of Senate seats contested in 2006 is more favorable to their party than what will follow. The long-term outlook troubles Graham, who sees a bleak Republican future north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins in Maine and Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania may be the last Republican senators from their states. The rising Hispanic-American population not only has transformed California into a Democratic state; freshman Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar looks like the new political face of Colorado, and Arizona is no longer safe for Kyl conservatives.
These demographic changes suggest an end to the gradual political realignment that began in the late '60s and produced consistent electoral success for Republicans. As a South Carolinian, Graham must worry about his party suffering the fate of Democrats in the '20s. Democrats elected only 20 House members and won no presidential electoral votes outside Southern and border states in 1920.
Accordingly, Graham is one conservative Republican who supports President Bush on immigration. He and Bush advisers agree that the immigration hard line may alienate the Hispanic vote with disastrous consequences. But Graham has little backing at the White House for a softened party line on global warming and entitlement reform that includes greater contributions by upper-income Americans.
Graham sees the highest Republican priority as controlling federal spending. He proposes renewing the campaign for a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced budget, backed up by self-restraint on earmarks. That agenda evokes limited applause in party circles. Sophisticates in Washington roll their eyes over constitutional limits on spending. Sens. John McCain and Tom Coburn have not made friends by fighting earmarks. After all, why should Republicans clap if they think they are ahead going into the last two holes?