WASHINGTON >> Around the time he was ready to wrap up the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, blurted out the clear subtext of President Donald Trump’s rush to install her before Election Day.
“You all have a good chance of winning the White House,” Graham told the Democrats on the committee, suggesting that they might soon have the chance to push through their own court nominees.
The frank assessment was typical of Graham, who has cultivated a reputation in the Senate for serving up candid commentary with a winking, sardonic twist. But it was also a gaffe of sorts, effectively conceding Democrats’ central argument against rushing to confirm Barrett before voters have their say on Nov. 3.
In a week of televised hearings, it was not the only misstep by Graham, who is facing a difficult reelection battle of his own in South Carolina.
He praised Barrett as “unashamedly pro-life” after she had spent days insisting she had “no agenda” to try to overturn abortion rights. He sarcastically referred to “the good old days of segregation” and was forced to walk the remark back. He quipped that his views on campaign finance reform might change because he did not know “where the hell” all his Democratic challenger’s money was coming from, and later plugged his campaign website in an extraordinary (and illegal) fundraising appeal to voters made from a Senate office building.
The blunders came at a critical moment for Graham, who had hoped his high-profile role in the hearings would give him a political boost in his increasingly tight reelection race.
“The contest in South Carolina has taken on a national profile,” Graham told reporters on Capitol Hill. “I trust the people of South Carolina to get it right.”
One of the starkest moments came Thursday, when Graham tried to justify the rush to confirm Barrett, arguing that voters elected a Republican president and a Republican-controlled Senate and expected them to confirm conservative judges.
“I think the public will go into the voting booth and they’ll say: ‘OK, I’ve seen the kind of judges Democrats will nominate. I’ve seen the kind of judges Republicans will nominate.’ And that will be important to people,” he said.
But that came after Graham conceded that Democrats were likely to win the election, suggesting that confirming nominees like Barrett was not, in fact, what he believed voters wanted at the moment.
Graham had hoped that his star turn as the ringmaster of confirmation ceremonies would energize Republican voters in his home state, where Trump enjoys broad support. A New York Times/Siena College poll released Thursday showed Trump leading former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, by 8 points in South Carolina, and Graham up 6 points over his Democratic challenger, Jaime Harrison.
In 2018, Graham’s leading role in the contentious hearings to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh made him an icon on the right after he delivered an indignant, blistering performance, declaring that Democrats’ treatment of Kavanaugh, who was accused of committing sexual assault as a teenager, had put the nominee through “hell.”
“You want this seat?” Graham seethed to Democrats on the panel. “I hope you never get it.”
The strategy then was clear: create a moment that would rouse conservatives around Kavanaugh and reinvigorate their base just weeks before the midterm elections. This time around, Graham evoked less a righteous preacher than a stand-up comedian riffing on his personal problems, even as he blew through committee customs in the final stages to keep Barrett’s nomination on a fast track.
Questioning Barrett’s views on the Citizens United decision that removed virtually any restrictions on corporate money in politics, Graham mused aloud about the flood of Democratic money that had inundated his own race, saying it could cause him to change his position on that case.
“There is a lot of money being raised in this campaign,” Graham said. “I would like to know where the hell some of it is coming from, but that is not your problem.”
Pleased at the lack of verbal fireworks, Graham lauded his colleagues for allowing Barrett to answer their questions uninterrupted, calling it “the standard going forward.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the panel, praised Graham on Thursday for overseeing “one of the best sets of hearings that I’ve participated in” and hugged him at the end, drawing howls of outrage from progressive activists.
But his penchant for the rhetorical flourish got Graham in trouble when he asked Barrett about various Supreme Court precedents, trying to drive home the point that there was no longer any meaningful push in America to challenge the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
“One of the reasons you can say with confidence that you think Brown v. Board of Education is a superprecedent is you are not aware of any effort to go back to the good old days of segregation via legislative body. Is that correct?” he asked.
It was an unforced error for Graham, who just a few days earlier was widely criticized for saying during a campaign forum in South Carolina that Black people “can go anywhere in this state” as long as they were “conservative, not liberal.”
Harrison, who is Black, immediately seized on the segregation comment and shared a clip of it on his Twitter account, sending it bouncing across social media.
“The good old days for who, Senator?” Harrison asked. “It’s 2020, not 1920. Act like it.”
During a break in the hearing, Graham said he had been misunderstood and rebuked his opponent for the criticism, insisting his comments were clearly “dripping with sarcasm.”
“It blows my mind that any rational person could believe that about me,” he added, referring to the era of segregation as “dark days.”
In some instances during the hearings, Graham offered a running dialogue that functioned as a thinly veiled campaign pitch, remarking unprompted in one instance on the frequency with which he golfs with Trump and the insight the trips have given him into matters of national security.
His most brazen reference to his own political fortunes came Wednesday night after the hearing had concluded for the day, when he made an appeal for campaign donations from the hallway of a Senate office building, violating a law that bars senators and their staff members from receiving or soliciting political contributions in any federal building.
“I think people in South Carolina are excited about Judge Barrett,” Graham told reporters, addressing television cameras assembled to cover the hearings. “I don’t know how much it affected fundraising today, but if you want to help me close the gap: LindseyGraham.com. A little bit goes a long way.”