Lindsey Graham's primal scream for the Republican elite

Stuck at 1 percent, Lindsey Graham set aside the speech he had intended to give and said the GOP front-runners are destroying the Republican Party.

Susan Walsh/AP
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Forum in Washington on Thursday.

Lindsey Graham is mad as heck and he wants voters to know that he’s not going to take it any more, apparently.

Languishing at 1 percent (or below) in national polls of GOP presidential aspirants, Senator Graham teed off on the policies and demeanor of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and other party front-runners during an appearance before the Republican Jewish Coalition on Thursday.

“I believe Donald Trump is destroying the Republican Party,” said Graham at one point, with emotion.

The South Carolina lawmaker followed Ted Cruz to the stage to address a foreign policy-oriented audience of Jewish donors and activists. Foreign policy is Graham’s strength – yet he didn’t even mention the word “Israel” for 15 minutes, as he himself noted.

Instead, perhaps peeved by the comments of Cruz and others, he talked first about what he feels is the need for the GOP to reach out to Hispanics.

“How many of you believe we lose elections because we’re not hard [expletive] enough on immigration?” he said.

Not many people responded.

“I believe we’re losing the Hispanic vote because they think we don’t like them,” Graham said.

He went on to talk about Trump’s insistence on rounding up undocumented immigrants in the US and deporting them.

“You think you’re going to win an election with that kind of garbage?” he said.

Later he addressed Cruz’s and Marco Rubio’s opposition to abortion, which Graham noted includes opposition to exceptions for cases of rape or incest.

“You’re losing most Americans” with that position, said Graham.

The senator went on to detail some of his national security positions, many of which the majority of the audience shared. But he went back to politics at the end.

“All I can tell you folks is we better not lose this election.... Almost anybody can beat Hillary Clinton. As long as they’re right on two good issues: immigration and having a sensible position on social issues,” Graham concluded.

On one level, Graham was undoubtedly talking for himself, expressing the frustration of an experienced Washington lawmaker who can’t believe he’s losing to people who’ve never brokered a legislative amendment.

But on another level, Graham’s speech (“not the one I expected to give," he said at one point) may be the scream of frustration of a GOP elite that sees itself losing control of the nomination race.

Some establishment Republicans worked long and hard following 2012 to try and pass an immigration bill that included a pathway to legality for current illegal immigrants. That’s now gone with the wind, blocked in Congress and made obsolete by Trump’s fierce anti-undocumented worker positions.

Cruz’s rise to first-tier status frustrates some elected GOP lawmakers as well. He’s unpopular in the extreme among his colleagues, given his propensity to call them out for what he says are betrayals of conservative principles.

For Graham, the outburst was a calculated risk. He knew he was unlikely to get booed: Jewish Republican voters tend to be more liberal on social policies. But the GOP primary electorate as a whole is going in a different direction, and Graham’s been left far behind the front-runners.

He will soon have to decide whether to drop out entirely, or leave his name on the ballot for the Feb. 20 primary in his home state of South Carolina, where he’d likely suffer a humiliating wipeout defeat. 

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