“Senator Graham is jokingly referred to as Senator Graham 1.0 and Senator Graham 2.0 who came through the Trump years, and 2.0 was the preferred upgrade,” said Nate Lieb, a Greenville County Republican and one of the party leaders in the South. Carolina, who said she had always been wary of the senator’s “splinter alliances.”
Mr. Graham’s 2016 presidential primary attempt — a bit of a lark, aiming to propel him onto the national stage as a solo act — was a humiliating reminder of how vulnerable he was at home: When he withdrew in December 2015, the single-digit ballot was in South Carolina.
He admits that his hard-line positions on immigration and trade were part of the problem. “I adore John McCain. Yes, he did more to guide and help me than anyone else in politics,” said Mr. Graham. “But having said that, I am a senator from South Carolina.”
Perhaps the most sensitive issue for Mr. Graham is his partisan record in judicial appointments.
Mr. Graham has long argued that presidents deserve the confirmation of their judicial nominees, and in 2010, he voted for Mr. Obama’s second Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan. It came at a cost: South Carolina anti-abortion protesters hanged him as a doll, and when he ran for re-election in 2014, six primary opponents showed up, each attacking him for being too liberal in the courts.
Mr. Graham downplayed the episode, but it clearly affected him.
I have triplets, and I would probably do anything, including breaking the law, to protect them. “He has secured a seat in the Senate,” Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, said of Mr. Graham in a recent podcast.
So when she opened a second position on the Supreme Court in early 2016, Mr. Graham signed off on Mr. McConnell’s refusal to allow a vote in the Senate on Merrick Garland’s nomination, on the grounds that it was too close to the November election.
Several people described a similar determination to prove his conservative goodwill in what was probably Graham’s most memorable public performance in Trump’s service: his furious defense of Brett M. Kavanaugh, whom he had known for a decade, against allegations of sexual misconduct during Supreme Court confirmation hearings in September 2018.