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Lindsey Graham dropping out is a surprisingly big opportunity for the GOP establishment

Lindsey Graham (right) and John McCain (left).
Lindsey Graham (right) and John McCain (left).
Alex Wong/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Four down, 12 more to go. On Monday, long-shot GOP candidate Lindsey Graham announced that he's suspending his presidential campaign. Though he claimed he had succeeded in pulling the GOP in a more hawkish direction, he admitted to CNN's Kate Bolduan that he's "hit a wall here" — and threw in the towel.

Now, Graham's polling was absolutely dismal — he was below 2 percent even in his own home state of South Carolina. So it may seem absurd to claim that his withdrawal could make a difference in the race.

But believe it or not, it actually could — because his exit will help free up some political elites to throw their support elsewhere. And though elite influence really hasn't seemed to do much in this race so far, some of Graham's former supporters could now help influence outcomes in two early states.

One of these is South Carolina. Many members of the state's political establishment had endorsed Graham out of loyalty to their home state senator, as Dave Weigel points out. South Carolina is the third state to vote in the GOP race, and has played a historically important role in winnowing the field. The Palmetto State is no longer the "firewall" for an establishment candidate that it once was — Newt Gingrich won there in 2012 — but if Trump and Cruz split the conservative vote there, it doesn't seem unthinkable that the South Carolina establishment could boost another candidate into contention by unifying behind him.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, is that John McCain's endorsement has been freed up — and that could impact the New Hampshire race. McCain and Graham are famously close friends (McCain has jokingly called Graham his "illegitimate son"), and so McCain endorsed Graham early on (becoming the only member of Congress to do so). And while McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, might not be beloved by conservatives nationally, he remains popular in New Hampshire, which he won during both of his presidential primary bids.

Furthermore, the Granite State race is unusually inchoate on the establishment side — Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie are all polling within a few points of each other. If one of them surges to the lead or even a strong second there, he could become the de facto mainstream Republican contender. And a McCain endorsement could help lead to that.

Why McCain might — and might not — endorse Marco Rubio

So whom might McCain endorse? During a recent event with reporters, McCain was asked which other candidates he liked besides Graham — and he named those exact four who are trying to break out in New Hampshire:

I do admire Christie's gumption. I do admire Jeb Bush's proposals. I think that John Kasich, who I came to the House with back in '82, has been a very successful governor in a swing state. Marco Rubio, I clearly view as the next generation of leaders in the Republican party particularly in national security issues.

Now, it sure seems like it would make sense for John McCain to endorse Marco Rubio. After all, McCain loathes both Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the two top-polling GOP candidates, and Rubio seems to many to have the best chance to stop them. McCain has no great love for the Bush family (he was viciously smeared by George W. Bush's allies during his first run for president, in 2000). Rubio is an interventionist hawk on foreign policy, much like McCain. And, of course, Rubio and McCain were both part of the Senate's Gang of Eight on immigration reform in 2013.

Yet that last bit might not be a selling point. Even before the immigration bill passed the Senate (it would stall in the House), McCain had some complicated feelings about Rubio. As the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza reported, McCain often felt that "Rubio’s public statements sometimes positioned him positively with conservatives at the expense of the Gang," and would even call Chuck Schumer to complain about it. "From time to time, his inexperience here shows up," McCain said back then.

Of course, since then Rubio has thrown his old colleagues under the bus, abandoning his support for the Gang of Eight's bill and saying that he'd only support a path to legalization for unauthorized immigrants years down the road. And here's what happened when Lizza followed up with McCain in July for his thoughts on Rubio:

McCain licked his finger, held it up in the air, and laughed. "You know that old song from before you were born?" McCain said, speaking of the Bob Dylan classic "Subterranean Homesick Blues." "You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."

This helps illustrate a recent point made by Matt Yglesias — Rubio has stepped on the toes of many Republicans during his rapid rise to prominence, which may be contributing to the relative lack of endorsements he's gotten so far.

Indeed, the candidate who seems like he might be closest to McCain's heart is Chris Christie (whom McCain praised for his "gumption"). In camping out in New Hampshire and doing town hall after town hall, Christie is running a McCain-style campaign. Christie has attempted to portray himself as a "straight talker" much like McCain did. And he's just as much of a national security hawk as Rubio is — though he has been opportunistically attacking Rubio from the right on immigration, which won't thrill McCain.

Most political observers wrote off Christie's campaign months ago, but Christie's tireless campaigning in New Hampshire paid off with an endorsement from the Union Leader newspaper last month. So if John McCain really wants to shake up the GOP race — and throw a wrench into Rubio's plans — endorsing Christie might be the way to go.

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