Jim DeMint’s Retirement: Good News or Bad News for Lindsey Graham?

graham2So yeah, this happened.  While Jim DeMint had publicly stated he would not run seek reelection in 2016, today’s announcement is surprising nonetheless.  And as if his premature retirement wasn’t enough, DeMint has reportedly told state Republicans he wants freshman representative Tim Scott (R SC-1) to replace him.  What’s interesting here (besides, like, all of it) is that in 2014 South Carolina will have two senators on the ballot (Lindsey Graham and, presumably, DeMint’s successor).  How does this unfold?  And what does it mean for Graham?  Here’s some (wild?) speculation…
Let’s say Nikki Haley follows through on Demint’s request and appoints Tim Scott to serve in the interim.  Scott accepts and, in turn, runs in 2014.  I think this makes good sense for Haley and state Republicans; this was my first thought prior to hearing of DeMint’s request.  Tim Scott is a rising star within both the House of Representatives (serving on the Rules Committee in his first term) and in conservative circles (as a member of the Tea Party Caucus).  He would also be the only Black Republican in the Senate in a party badly needing diversity.  Now it’s plausible that Scott many not want the seat for a few reasons.  First, given his rapid rise in the House and the ease with which he can win reelection in South Carolina’s first district, Scott may remain in the House for his career.  I suspect he would, over time, become a very influential representative.  But second, while Scott is popular in his district, it’s unclear if he would be as popular upstate.  But let’s say for the sake of speculation that he takes the offer from Haley (of course, Haley could appoint someone else as a “placeholder” or appoint herself).

Hypothesis 1: Catharsis—It’s no secret that South Carolina conservatives are uneasy with Lindsey Graham.  Among his many “flaws,”  Graham coauthored columns in the NYT with John Kerry on the dangers of climate change.  He also suggested that town hall protesters were merely “angry white people.”  He’s not married and has a liberal voting record to boot (by Republican standards, at least).  But with Scott on his right flank, conservative voters “get one of theirs.”  This catharsis and the ensuing waves of calm allow conservative Republicans to stomach Graham.  Make sense?  I’m not so sure…

Hypothesis 2: Primary Turnout—With Tea Party darling Tim Scott on the ballot, the 2014 Republican primary becomes even more thorny for Graham.  Though primaries usually “bring out the base” anyway, Scott’s presence may further drive conservatives to the polls.  This scenario could be made worse by outside spending; far-right groups have already promised massive spending in South Carolina to unseat Graham.  Of course, Graham has quite a bit of money in the bank, so this factor may be a wash.  Nonetheless, in this scenario Graham gets primaried due to higher-than-usual conservative turnout.  Still not convinced?  Me either.  I give it a 5 out of 10.

Hypothesis 3: No Effect—Speculation such as this gets too easily overblown.  All too often these kinds of events have little to no effect on actual political outcomes (even though they’re fun to think about).  What’s more important here I suspect is that Graham has grahammoved to the right over his career in the Senate.  The figure to the left charts the ideology of South Carolina’s four most recent senators (the data are from VoteView.com).  We can see that Graham (purple) and DeMint (Green) have moved to the right at about the same pace.  I suspect this movement is especially pronounced in the current Senate (we don’t have the data yet) and will only accelerate in the coming 113th (see yesterday’s post simulating the Disability Treaty Vote for some more evidence).  So while scenarios #1 and #2 may be plausible, the reality is that Graham has carefully prepared for a conservative challenge in 2014.  DeMint’s retirement doesn’t change much.  Graham is also very popular state-wide, even among conservatives (in a Clemson University poll last month Graham received favorable ratings from 63 percent of state Republicans).  So this is where my chips lie: Graham defeats a primary challenger and safely wins reelection in 2014 (and we look back on DeMint’s retirement as inconsequential in this respect).  I’ll even go out on a limb and say Tim Scott accepts DeMint’s vacant seat and wins as well (though I wouldn’t be surprised to see Scott stay in the House).

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