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U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham launches re-election bid with full-throated embrace of Donald Trump

Vice President Mike Pence travels to South Carolina for 2020 campaign kickoff

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

GREENVILLE, South Carolina (CFP) — U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham has become one of President Donald Trump’s most vigorous and unlikely defenders in the Senate. And now, he’s reaping the rewards.

Graham officially launched his 2020 re-election bid on March 30 with Vice President Mike Pence by his side at stops in Myrtle Beach and Greenville. And Pence brought greetings from the commander-in-chief.

“South Carolina and America need Lindsey Graham in the United States Senate, and I’m not the only one who thinks that where I work,” Pence told a rally in Greenville. “We’re standing next to this man because of the way he stood next to us.”

Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham campaign in Greenville (From WSPA via YouTube)

Graham also put his relationship with Trump front-and-center in his re-election campaign.

“Purpose No. 1 is to help President Trump in his second term, to be an ally of this president who has kept his word, who is making America great again and will continue to do so,” Graham said. “I want to help him because I believe in what he’s doing.”

It was not always thus. During the 2016 campaign, when he was running against Trump for president, Graham called him a “kook” who was “unfit for office.” In the general election, he voted for third-party candidate Evan McMullin, rather than embracing his party’s nominee — and openly admitted his apostasy to the press.

Graham had long been a champion of comprehensive immigration reform, the polar opposite of Trump’s stance on immigration policy. And his closest friend in the Senate was the late John McCain, Trump’s most persistent Senate critic.

But over the last year, Graham and Trump have warmed to each other, frequently playing golf together, and his previous criticism has been replaced with praise. And he has sided with the president in some very visible fights, most notably his defense of Trump Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who faced allegations of sexual misconduct.

“I’ve come to find common ground with him,” Graham said of Trump in Greenville. “I like him, and he likes him, and that seems to be working for both of us.”

“Every day with President Trump is like Christmas. You don’t know what’s under the tree, but you know there’s something under it,” Graham said. “Some days it’s a good shotgun you’ve been wanting, and other days it’s a sweater. But it all works.”

Graham, 63, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is seeking his fourth term in the Senate in 2020. In his last two campaigns in 2008 and 2014, he faced primary challenges from opponents on the right who criticized him for being insufficiently conservative, particularly on the immigration issue.

Graham won both of those primaries, but in 2014 was held to 56 percent of the vote, not the strongest of showings for an incumbent senator.

If Graham needed a lesson in the perils of getting sideways with the president’s followers, it came last summer when then-U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, a Trump critic who represented the Lowcountry in Congress, was bounced in a Republican primary in which the president endorsed his opponent.

Having Trump on side in 2020 will make it much more difficult for successful challenge to Graham from within the party.

Graham has already drawn three Republican challengers, but none of them are well known and are unlikely to be a threat.

In his three previous Senate elections, Graham won the general election easily in a state where Republicans are dominant. But he could face a Democratic challenge in 2020 from Jamie Harrison, a Columbia attorney and former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, who has formed an exploratory committee for the 2020 race.

Democrats haven’t won a Senate race in the Palmetto State since 1998.

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