Sen. Lindsey Graham is the latest GOP presidential candidate to fall, ending his campaign Monday after he failed to win public support among Republican primary voters for a more hawkish foreign policy abroad and a more liberal approach to global warming and immigration back at home.
Mr. Graham was dented by his two decades in Congress, which gave him extensive experience but also left him with a long record full of votes conservatives disliked — including his support for granting citizenship rights to illegal immigrants.
The South Carolina Republican, unlike others in the field, refused to shy away from his support of a 2013 Senate immigration bill that would have legalized most illegal immigrants and offered a place to millions of additional legal immigrants in the future.
The longtime Air Force officer was also the most outspoken in urging a more aggressive approach to threats overseas, including confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian leader Bashar Assad and committing U.S. ground troops to fight the Islamic State.
In a video Monday announcing his withdrawal from the race, he said even if he didn’t win over voters, he changed the debate by forcing candidates to embrace American military leadership.
“Four months ago, at the very first debate, I said, ‘Any candidate that did not understand that we need more American troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIL was not ready to be commander in chief,’” Mr. Graham said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “At that time no one stepped forward to join me. Today, most of my fellow candidates have come to recognize this is what’s needed to secure our homeland.”
He’s the fourth major Republican to end his campaign, following Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Nathan L. Gonzales, of the Rothenberg and Gonzales Political Report, a nonpartisan group that analyzes elections, said Mr. Graham did not have a natural constituency in the Republican race.
“A chunk of primary voters want red meat from their candidate, and that’s just not what Graham was offering,” Mr. Gonzales said. “He was trying to be the grown-up in the room, but there isn’t a lot of space in this race for a 20-year politician with a moderate reputation.”
He also fell victim to the size of the Republican field, with more than a dozen other candidates in the race, many of them seeking the establishment mantle.
“There were simply too many establishment candidates in the race that it was tough for Lindsey Graham to consolidate them,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist.
The only place where Mr. Graham made ripples was in his home state of South Carolina, whose primary is the third contest on the nomination calendar.
“Senator Graham has an incredibly strong and loyal grassroots network in South Carolina,” South Carolina GOP Chairman Matt Moore said in a statement. “Given Senator Graham’s huge primary victory in South Carolina just last year, the Graham network could have a major impact on South Carolina’s presidential primary.”
Mr. Graham was relegated to the lower-tier debates but was regularly cited as one of the standouts in those affairs, mixing withering attacks on President Obama with self-deprecating humor.
Still, his record in Congress of advocating for issues at odds with the GOP’s electoral base put a ceiling on his 2016 chances.
He was the only presidential candidate serving in Congress to vote for last week’s massive spending hikes and tax cuts package, and has been an outspoken voice calling for the U.S. to heed global warming.
But in a year when businessman Donald Trump has pushed the GOP further to the right on immigration, Mr. Graham was hurt by advocating for leniency toward illegal immigrants.
In 2013 Mr. Graham was a member of the “Gang of Eight” senators that pushed an immigration overhaul through the upper chamber that included a quick path to legalization and eventual citizenship for most illegal immigrants.
The bill was derided by most Republicans in Congress as “amnesty”; the issue never even got a floor vote in the GOP-controlled House.
Mr. Graham remained a defender of the bill even as another co-author, Sen. Marco Rubio, also a presidential hopeful, has distanced himself. Mr. Rubio now says no legalization can be passed until Congress fixes the borders, boosts interior enforcement and streamlines the legal immigration system.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, is calling for all illegal immigrants to be deported, and Sen Ted Cruz of Texas has come out against legalization.
The Democratic National Committee said Mr. Graham’s exit shows how far the GOP has drifted to the right, and said it’s proof Republicans haven’t learned the lessons from 2012.
In the Republican National Committee’s autopsy report of that defeat, party officials said they needed to support immigration reforms and be less caustic in talking about immigrants.
“Three years later, the one presidential candidate who has consistently favored comprehensive immigration reform just dropped out of the race after attracting virtually no support,” DNC spokesman Eric Walker said.
Mr. Walker said Mr. Trump “has consistently demonized immigrant communities” and said Mr. Cruz has urged the field to join him in “his extreme position of opposing legalization or citizenship for undocumented immigrants.”
Mr. Graham had hoped to duplicate the success of close friend Sen. John McCain, whose path to the 2008 nomination ignored Iowa and focused intently on the New Hampshire primary.
Mr. Graham spent more time than any of his rivals in New Hampshire and campaigned with Mr. McCain.
Mr. McCain, in a statement Monday, said Mr. Graham fell victim to the crowded field and the decision by the Republican National Committee and television networks to split the candidates into upper and lower tiers for the debates.
Even so, Mr. McCain said, Mr. Graham “helped stem the rise within our party of isolationism and obliviousness in world affairs.”
In an interview with CNN on Monday, Mr. Graham suggested that Mr. Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are most akin to him on national security and foreign policy. “Jeb and Marco get it,” he said.
• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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