South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham on Monday bowed out of the presidential race after failing to attract any significant support, despite his memorable zingers and passionate commitment to pushing a hawkish foreign policy agenda.
His announcement came on the same day as the deadline hit for him to remove his name from the South Carolina primary ballot, a date that had been closely watched amid speculation that Graham would want to avoid a potentially poor performance in his own state’s contest.
“I was hoping not to have to make this call, but I think the time has come for me to suspend my campaign,” he said as he opened a call with supporters on Monday morning.
Graham, a well-respected voice in the Senate who easily won reelection in 2014 despite several attempts to unseat him by primary challengers, has nonetheless failed to gain traction in the presidential contest. The senator, who entered the race in part because he hoped to push foreign policy issues to the forefront on the debate stage, has repeatedly been relegated to undercard contests, where he has earned positive reviews but hardly any boost in poll numbers.
Even with Graham dropping out, the GOP field still has 13 contenders, with a little more than a month before the Iowa caucuses.
“We’ve come to a point now where I just don’t see how we grow the campaign without getting on the main stage,” he said. “One of the biggest problems we’ve had was to get our voice on equal footing with others. This second-tier debate process has been difficult for us. I think we’ve done well in the debates, it’s just hard to break through because the buzz doesn’t last very long.”
Graham’s latest RealClearPolitics national polling average is only .5 percent. In New Hampshire, the state in which Graham has made the biggest efforts, campaigning there as recently as this weekend with ally John McCain, Graham’s average is 0 percent. Graham’s exiting of the race comes just weeks before the next Republican presidential debate comes to his home state, on Jan. 14.
By leaving now, he frees up some South Carolina donors and operatives, who had either been backing Graham or staying neutral out of respect for the state’s senior senator.
“I’ll watch and see where Lindsey goes,” said Katon Dawson, the former South Carolina GOP chairman who previously supported Rick Perry, who has also left the race. “After Perry got out, in deference to Sen. Graham, I’ve been waiting to see if he stays or leaves. Now I’ll be real interested in seeing what Lindsey’s opinions are on all of them after having campaigned with them.”
He added that in particular, House and Senate members and local officials will now feel more free to align with another candidate.
Graham also positions himself as a kingmaker in the Feb. 20 South Carolina primary. It’s unclear whom Graham might back, but he has made his disdain known for two of the other candidates currently leading in South Carolina: Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
“Sen. Graham has an incredibly strong and loyal grassroots network that will be wooed by many campaigns,” said Matt Moore, the current South Carolina GOP chair. Much of the top talent in the Republican operative class in the state comes from Graham’s world. “I think his network and Sen. Graham’s endorsement will have an impact on the race,” should he choose to make one.
Graham told CNN in an interview that he doesn’t have any imminent plans to endorse. “I’m going to take some time with my family. Going to think about what I should do. I have no intention of endorsing anyone right now,” he said.
Graham, with his signature quick wit, made a brand out of his one-liners, particularly those aimed at Trump, and also stood out in the race for his particularly hawkish foreign policy stance. He has advocated for sending 20,000 troops to fight the Islamic State, one of the most aggressive — and specific — proposals from the presidential candidates, many of whom have been quick to cite areas of agreement with Graham.
The South Carolina senator received warm words after his announcement on Monday, from both Republicans and Democrats. “Nobody is more clear-eyed about ISIS than my friend @GrahamBlog. As he leaves the race I hope our party & country listen to his counsel,” Jeb Bush tweeted.
John Kasich also took to Twitter to say, “Enjoyed Sen. @LindseyGrahamSC‘s wit & respect his seriousness on nat’l security—experience matters. Best wishes to him. -John.”
David Axelrod, a former campaign strategist to President Barack Obama, expressed regret that Graham was stuck on the undercard stage, tweeting, “I disagree with @GrahamBlog on many things, but I deeply respect him. He lit up the undercard debates. Too bad he never made the main stage!”
McCain, meanwhile, issued a statement saying it was a “pity” that the debate set-up muted Graham’s message. “With Senator Lindsey Graham’s announcement, Republicans lost our most qualified, thoughtful, fearless and honest presidential candidate, not to mention the candidate with the best (and it seemed sometimes the only) sense of humor,” he said in a statement.
Graham, during his call to supporters, said he was proud of the presidential campaign he ran. “I never went down the demagoguery trail,” he said Monday morning, in a shot at Trump. “I didn’t get into this campaign to run other people down, and to bring out the worst in who we are as a party or a country. I think what makes America great is our tolerance for each other and the fact that we respect people who are different. That’s so different than our enemies.”
He went on to add, “I tried to be a voice for those fighting this war.”
Alex Isenstadt contributed to this report.
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