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Can Immigration Be a Winning Issue for Lindsey Graham?

Every so often a political event that seems inevitable fails to materialize. One such event that looks to be headed in that direction is a serious primary challenge to South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. Long derided by conservative grassroots as “Lindsey Grahamnesty” for his moderate stance on immigration, the two-term senator has battled his own side enough that most expected the Tea Party primary wave to land on the shores of the Palmetto State with full force in 2014, when Graham’s term is up.

Yet for all such talk, there hasn’t been much noise coming from actual candidates who would challenge Graham. One reason for this, as Politico notes, is Graham’s high-profile opposition to Susan Rice’s potential nomination as secretary of state. Not only did Graham win the battle–Rice withdrew her name from consideration–but it’s also seen as a victory in conservatives’ effort to raise the profile of the administration’s failure in Benghazi and its ensuing evasiveness over misleading statements to the press about it. Graham’s poll numbers have seen a bounce from it as well. But there are other reasons for Graham’s sudden stability.

One underreported aspect of Graham’s relationship with the conservative base is the changing politics of immigration for the GOP. Mitt Romney’s lopsided loss among Hispanics (and immigrant groups in general) in the November election gave new momentum, as well as popular support and political cover, to the GOP’s immigration moderates. Though South Carolina voters are not Florida voters, it would be a strange sight indeed for conservative voters to primary Graham over the issue of immigration but not, say, Marco Rubio–a conservative senator often associated with the Tea Party movement and a beneficiary of the right’s “primarying” strategy himself–who was planning to introduce his own version of the DREAM Act this past year.

John McCain, Graham’s fellow immigration reformer and close friend in the Senate, was also vulnerable on the issue in 2010 and seemed to run to his right on immigration to fend off a primary challenge. Graham may not have to adjust his position on immigration to fend off a primary challenge–indeed, Graham’s enthusiasm for immigration reform is looking to be more like the party’s future than its past. If that shift really takes place, it should take the issue off the table for primary challengers and may make Graham’s moderation seem wise and ahead of its time. That would be a remarkable turnaround for the party and the issue of immigration, yet it is a quite plausible scenario.

There are, of course, other reasons Graham is stronger than he seemed all along. Aside from the Benghazi episode, Graham has the fundraising and party network advantages of incumbency. He has also been one of the party’s leaders on foreign policy, where his views have been closer to his conservative base than on the issue of immigration.

He’s not out of the woods yet. The so-called fiscal cliff debate looks headed for a compromise involving raising taxes, and Graham has suggested the right be open to raising tax rates. Yet if the party caves on taxes as part of a final deal, it may absolve Graham of some of the blame. If conservatives in the GOP end up supporting some tax increases, Graham won’t be an outlier–even among conservatives. That might take the issue off the table, or at least dull its impact, the way immigration went from being evidence of Graham’s apostasy to a GOP mainstream policy position just in time for Graham’s reelection.