It’s just after lunchtime at the Lexington, South Carolina Chick-Fil-A, and Stephen Lewis is giving U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham a piece of his mind about undocumented immigrants.
“Why can’t they understand the word ‘illegal?’” Lewis, a 72-year-old retired Marine, asks Graham on March 26 as the senator swings by his table to shake hands. “They’re not undocumented workers, they’re illegal folks in this country, and if you’re illegal doing anything, then you should be punished and made to pay for it.”
It’s a familiar gripe to Graham. A second-term Republican, he has long led the effort in Washington to allow undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., currently estimated to number about 11 million, a chance to become citizens as part of a broad immigration rewrite.
Now as Graham, 57, teams with three other Republicans and four Democrats to finalize such a bill, he is working to answer the complaints of South Carolina voters while keeping an eye on any potential Republican primary challenge to his re-election next year.
“There’s a sea change happening in the Republican Party on this, and I see it here,” Graham says in an interview as sips Coke Zero while riding from his Columbia office to Mrs. B’s Southern Kitchen to greet voters. “If I can sell it in South Carolina, don’t come to me and say it’s hard. This is a conservative state, and the way we’re selling it is to fix it.”
With Congress on a two-week vacation, Graham is traveling his skeptical state as aides to the so-called “Gang of Eight” senators haggle over the specifics in Washington. The Senate group is pushing to unveil its measure the week of April 8.
President Barack Obama said yesterday he is confident an immigration bill will pass in the next several months, and New York Senator Charles Schumer, a Democratic member of the bipartisan group, said the aides are “90 percent” done with a draft of the bill.”
Graham is making his stand as the environment for an immigration rewrite is improving on various fronts. A growing number of Republicans -- including the Republican National Committee -- are urging lawmakers to drop opposition to legalizing undocumented immigrants after the 2012 presidential elections showed their standing with Hispanic voters had hit rock-bottom.
A Public Religion Research Institute poll of 4,465 people released March 21 found that more than six in 10 respondents, including a majority of Republicans, backed a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants as long as they met certain requirements.
“Attitudes about immigration are very strong, but they’re also evolving in the Republican community,” said Whit Ayres, a polling expert who advises Graham. “There’s far more openness toward a reasonable and defensible immigration reform than there was even six months ago.”
Still, it’s not a simple argument to make, particularly for Graham, who earned the ire of core party activists for his past efforts on the issue. Opponents derisively nicknamed his work as “Grahamnesty.” After the collapse of a 2007 rewrite pushed by President George W. Bush, Graham backed off his advocacy and -- with his own approval ratings at home plummeting -- refused in 2010 to participate in a bid by Obama to revive it. In withdrawing his support, he accused Obama of “a phony, political effort” that would undermine any real chance of future progress on immigration.
This time around, it’s clear Graham, who speaks with a nasally Southern drawl, is ready to re-engage.
Not ‘Backing Down’
“I don’t feel heat like I used to,” Graham said at a March 26 news conference with local faith leaders who support the immigration negotiations. “If you want to talk about immigration, you’re welcome to come down and talk to me. If you want to run ads, spend all the money you want to spend. I’m not backing down.”
Opinions are shifting Graham's way in South Carolina. In focus groups conducted this month, Resurgent Republic, a Republican-aligned firm, found that Republican primary voters in Greenville were strongly opposed to illegal immigration, yet viewed mass deportation as impractical. They were open to considering an arduous pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants after border security had been bolstered.
Among the conclusions from the group and another in Des Moines, Iowa, Republican strategists Ed Gillespie and John McLaughlin wrote in a memo released today, are that Republican base voters “are following this issue from a distance, so Republicans seeking to pass broad-based immigration policies need to make the case as to why this is necessary.” They also advise Republicans to talk about the benefits of immigration, and emphasize that legalization “does not absolve wrongdoing.”
That’s unpersuasive to those plotting to oust Graham.
“Calling them legal I’ve got a problem with,” said State Senator Lee Bright, who said he is “seriously considering” challenging Graham in a primary race. “I don’t want folks who have not come here legally to be able to vote or to be able to collect any kind of welfare.”
Graham’s position on immigration isn’t Bright’s only criticism. He said the senator underscored how out of touch he is with South Carolinians when he criticized Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a Republican, for a 13-hour filibuster criticizing the Obama administration’s drone policy.
“He seems like he’s trying to find a lot of compromise with Obama, and it seems like when you compromise with Obama, you lose if you’re a conservative,” Bright said in an interview.
Unseating Graham, he added, “would be uphill in the snow - - I mean, there’s no question it would be a tough fight -- but I do think it’s doable.”
A survey conducted by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning company, last year found that Graham had gained substantial ground with Republican primary voters since his low point in 2010. A January 2011 survey by the firm found just 37 percent of them backing Graham in a primary, while 52 percent wanted an unnamed “more conservative” choice; by December 2012, 51 percent supported him compared to 40 percent who wanted an alternative.
If he does draw an opponent, Graham’s political organization in the state and his ample campaign account -- he had raised $7.6 million and had $4.4 million in cash by the end of last year -- will make him hard to beat, supporters said.
“He has done a very good job over the last 12 to 18 months sort of re-positioning himself with the Republican primary voters, and you can see that in his” approval ratings, said J. Warren Tompkins, who has advised Graham as well as Republican presidential candidates dating back to former President Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign. “The criticism of Rand Paul was a misstep, and he stubbed his toe, but he stubbed his toe -- he didn’t break it.”
Still, opponents of the immigration measure are working to make an example of Graham.
NumbersUSA, an Arlington, Virginia, organization that helped engineer a telephone, e-mail and fax onslaught of congressional offices in opposition to the 2007 bill, last month began airing television and radio spots against Graham, backed by a six-figure ad buy.
In response, evangelical and business leaders have begun their own ad campaigns defending him.
As he travels the state talking about the issue, Graham is telling South Carolinians their state’s economic well-being -- driven by agriculture, tourism and manufacturing -- turns on the future availability of immigrant workers. That element has created a stalemate in negotiations on Capitol Hill, with organized labor pressing for stricter limits and higher wages on a proposed visa program for low-skilled workers, while businesses resist those requirements.
It’s the major factor weighing on Andy White, the legislative director for the Homebuilders Association of South Carolina, who’s waiting for Graham when he arrives at Mrs. B’s to greet the lunchtime crowd enjoying catfish, collard greens and banana pudding.
White wants a measure that legalizes undocumented laborers and brings in more immigrants to work. Yet he’s worried the bill taking shape in Washington will mean higher home building costs by applying federal wage requirements that don’t currently bind the state. “We’re concerned about ensuring that we’ll have a supply of labor here to meet the burgeoning housing market, because we are recovering here,” White said.
The terms of the low-skilled worker program are the one element Graham said could cause him to walk away from an emerging deal.
Democrats are “overplaying their hand” by siding with the unions on the issue, Graham said. “I’m not going to go for a guest-worker program that’s unaffordable and unaccessible, because we’re going to have a third wave” of illegal immigration.
“I don’t mind walking away from the bill if it’s a bad bill -- I can do that,” Graham said, gazing out his car window on his way to the next constituent visit. “I will do it in a heartbeat.”