“I jokingly refer to Senator Graham as Senator Graham 1.0 and the Senator Graham 2.0 who came along during the Trump years, the 2.0 being the preferred upgrade,” said Nate Leupp, chairman of the Greenville County Republicans and one of several party leaders in South Carolina who said they had long been wary of the senator’s “maverick alliances.”
Mr. Graham’s 2016 presidential primary bid — a bit of a lark, intended to vault him to the national stage as a solo act — had been a humiliating reminder of how vulnerable he was at home: When he dropped out in December 2015, he was polling in single digits in South Carolina.
His McCain-esque positions on immigration and trade, he admits, were part of the problem. “I adore John McCain. Yeah, he’s done more to mentor me and help me than any single person in politics,” Mr. Graham said. “But having said that, I’m the senator from South Carolina.”
Perhaps the most sensitive issue for Mr. Graham was his bipartisan record on judicial appointments.
Mr. Graham had long argued that presidents deserved to have their judicial nominees confirmed, and in 2010, he voted for Mr. Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan. It came at a cost: Anti-abortion protesters in South Carolina hanged him in effigy, and when he ran for re-election in 2014, six primary opponents popped up, each hammering him for being too liberal on the courts.
Mr. Graham has played down the episode, but it clearly scarred him.
“I have triplets, and I would probably do anything, including breaking the law, to protect them. He’s got a Senate seat,” Mick Mulvaney, the former acting White House chief of staff, said of Mr. Graham on a recent podcast.
So when a second Supreme Court vacancy opened up in early 2016, Mr. Graham signed on to Mr. McConnell’s refusal to allow a Senate vote on the nomination of Merrick Garland, on the grounds that it came too close to the November election.
And several people described a similar determination to prove his conservative bona fides in what was probably Mr. Graham’s most memorable public performance in the service of Mr. Trump: his outraged defense of Brett M. Kavanaugh, whom he had known for a decade, against sexual misconduct allegations during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings in September 2018.