He’s not running away, just inching away. Running away from Trump in a state as red as SC would be politically suicidal.

But he does seem to have discovered a bit of an independent streak over the past few weeks, coincidentally following his victory in the state’s Senate primary.

Is Lindsey hedging his bets this fall in … South Carolina?

Since June 20, Graham has blocked a Trump U.S. attorney nominee, criticized Trump’s decision to put a temporary freeze on visas for foreign workers, split with the president about face masks during the coronavirus pandemic and pressed the administration for information about alleged Russian bounties on American soldiers.

Monday, Graham was at odds with Trump after the president alleged in a Twitter post that an apparent noose found last month in the Talladega Superspeedway garage of Bubba Wallace, NASCAR’s only Black full-time driver, was a “HOAX,” and called on Wallace to apologize to his NASCAR colleagues…

Graham’s recent rebuffs of Trump could be an attempt to “have some limited amount of distance from the president” in order to maintain support from groups — like suburban voters — who have “soured” on Trump, according to Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the nonpartisan political newsletter Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

The most surprising item on that list was his move to block Trump’s and Barr’s installation of SEC commissioner Jay Clayton as the new U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York. He didn’t just thwart the president in that case, he handed veto power over Clayton’s nomination to Democrats Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand by insisting on following the Judiciary Committee’s “blue slip policy” on nominees. Given all the probes the SDNY is running of Trump allies, that decision could potentially have serious political consequences.

I don’t think Graham’s very worried about losing South Carolina. But he’s a little worried:

$14 million in a quarter is a big number in a Senate race. Not “Beto O’Rourke big,” but big enough to show that Democrats nationally are highly motivated to defeat Graham for his servility towards Trump over the past four years and are willing to keep pouring fuel into Harrison’s tank in a longshot bid to make it happen. To put that number in context, Harrison outraised Graham in the first quarter of this year when he took in … $7.3 million. He nearly doubled that amount over the past three months. If Trump’s national polling slips further and surveys out of SC suggest Harrison has a glimmer of hope against Graham this fall, I wonder if he might not double his money again in the third quarter.

Does Harrison have a glimmer of hope? If so, it’s just the barest glimmer. But one of the few polls taken of South Carolina over the past few months had he and Graham tied at 42 in late May. That’s hard to believe, but if the race really was competitive-ish at the time, it’s surely even more competitive today after Trump’s job approval slipped nationally over the past month. (One survey of South Carolina has the president at a mere 50/47 approval there.) Nate Cohn says SC is exactly the sort of state that could be in play if — if — the polls showing a big Biden lead nationally right now are accurate.

Graham’s series of polite disagreements with Trump are his way of hedging against the not very likely but not impossible scenario in which things get even worse for the GOP this fall. A 10-point national lead for the Democrat is about as bad as things can get realistically in an age of hyperpartisanship, one would think. South Carolina is red enough that Graham would still be a strong favorite if the election were held today, notwithstanding the difficulties Trump is having lately. But if the economy sputters over the next few months and/or there’s a ferocious fall wave of COVID-19, that’s when all proverbial bets are off. However belatedly, Graham needs to fashion for himself a political identity more complicated than “Trump lackey.” Just in case.

The question is how far can he move away from the president without alienating the MAGA voters he needs to turn out en masse for him. Tim Miller dialed up a bunch of Republican consultants and asked them what the lay of the land looks like politically right now. “Really bad,” came the reply, but with a catch. Whereas with a normal politician a “really bad” outlook would lead politicians downballot to head for the lifeboats, in the Trump-era GOP heading for the lifeboats is an act of partisan treason. The lifeboats will be sunk to punish the traitors. People like Graham have no choice but to stay on the ship and hope that Trump keeps it afloat.

One consultant used a nautical metaphor himself to explain his predicament to Miller: “There are two options, you can be on this hell ship or you can be in the water drowning.”

“There are practical realities — we ran a bunch of red district primaries, and it would come back that the number one issue for 80+% of Republican primary voters was loyalty to Donald Trump. I’m not making that number up,” a respondent told me…

According to one: “You have 25% of the state [Texas] is rural and Trump gets like Saddam Hussein level numbers here. 87% in 25% of the state… [John] Cornyn gets 69. And so Cornyn can’t find a place to break from because he could really put that in jeopardy.”

And thus the polarizing nature of Trump makes it impossible for Cornyn to make a move that helps him in the swingy suburbs without risking the floor falling out from under him in West Texas.

This same calculus pervades no matter the race, no matter the district, no matter the geography: The operatives insist that the pro-Trump zealotry the president’s supporters demand makes it far more difficult for candidates to win over anyone else.

Graham has an impossible task, attempting to triangulate between swing voters on the one hand and a personality cult on the other. All he can do, I think, is try to pick his spots in disagreeing with POTUS, be polite and as uncritical as possible in articulating that disagreement, and hope that there’s enough residual goodwill towards him in South Carolina that some swing voters will split their tickets in his favor even if the bottom falls out for Trump nationally. That’s what he’s doing now, trying to shore up some of that goodwill where he can.

Here he is yesterday via RCP defending Bubba Wallace from Trump’s criticism.