There is no doubt that the Republican Party remains the party of Donald Trump, but the future of the GOP must be a movement based on more than the personality of a single person, South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham told National Review in an interview Friday.
Exactly how much influence the former president will continue to wield within the party will be determined in the 2022 elections, which Republicans are in a good position to win, said Graham, one of the speakers Friday at the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority Conference.
“The key to 2022 is putting your best team on the field,” Graham said of winning back the U.S. House and Senate. “The question is, will we allow the most electable candidates to come out of the primary? This is where Trump becomes important.”
Graham has had a complicated, on-again off-again relationship with Trump. He was one of Trump’s harshest critics in the run-up to the 2016 election, but he ended up developing a close working relationship with Trump after he won the presidency. Graham joked during Friday’s conference that after Trump’s 2016 win, they found “common ground.”
“That common ground is that he likes him, and I’ve come to like him,” Graham said.
Graham had harsh words for the former president after the violent mob ransacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6 – he said it “tarnished” Trump’s legacy – but they’ve since reconciled.
Graham acknowledged that Trump is still the Republican Party’s most powerful and polarizing figure. If Trump left the party tomorrow, “half of the party would go with him,” Graham said, so trying to map out the future of the Republican Party without Trump is not an option.
Graham said that when he speaks with Trump, he makes the point that if Republicans lose next year, the Capitol riot will likely be Trump’s rhetorical obituary, and the party will need to do a lot of soul-searching. But if Trump is seen as having helped Republicans retake the House and Senate, “nobody will beat him,” Graham said.
“I told the president, when you’re looking to back somebody, whether you like them or not – if you’re looking for revenge, which tastes always good – remember that your legacy is at stake here, your viability as a future political figure is at stake here. Because if we lose another cycle, I think there will be an awareness that we have to make a fundamental change,” Graham said. “The loudest, most Trumpian person in the room might not be the best person to win.”
Graham is bullish on the GOP’s chances in 2022, particularly in the House, where Republicans will need to flip only a half dozen seats or so.
“The Democrats are doing their part to put us back in the majority,” Graham said. “Their agenda is far more liberal than most people thought it would be.”
Long term, Republicans are grappling with “how do you take the best of Trump, how do you keep the Trump movement alive,” even without Trump at the helm of the party, Graham said. “It’s got to be a movement, not a personality,” he said.
Republicans need to win back college-educated suburban women who fled the party last year not based on policy, but because of Trump’s pugilistic style, Graham said. To win minority voters, the party needs to recruit candidates who “look more like America,” he said, and GOP elders need to do a better job talking about conservatism with younger voters, who are more tolerant on social issues and comfortable addressing topics such as climate change.
Graham said Trump’s policies remain popular across the conservative base, and in many cases – border security and support for law enforcement, for example – they are popular even among voters who don’t consider themselves Republicans. Democrats, on the other hand, aren’t united on policy, he said.
“The Democrats basically are trapped by their base,” Graham said. “They can’t do the things to restore order to the border. That’s going to be a problem for them. They’re being pushed on Israel to be more sympathetic to Hamas. They’re being pushed to basically declare war on policing. I just think, with the right set of candidates, the issues are our biggest asset. Policy is our friend. Personality has to be reined in.”
Graham was honored Friday with the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s “Antonin Scalia Defender of Justice Award” for his defense of Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh during his contentious 2018 confirmation fight, and for his advocacy for justice Amy Coney Barrett last year.
Graham, who ran for president in 2016, said he has no intention of running again in 2024.