Who's Gunning for Lindsey Graham?

His vote for Elena Kagan’s nomination is just the latest conservative heresy from South Carolina’s senior senator. Samuel Jacobs on the Tea Party’s preferred challenger: Luv Guv Mark Sanford.

07.21.10 10:40 PM ET

Lindsey Graham is toast—or so say conservatives nationwide and at home in South Carolina. On Tuesday, Graham cast a vote in favor of President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. His “aye” made him the first Republican lawmaker to back Kagan and marked the latest in a series of decisions that have made Graham the object of intense anger among Tea Party activists and others on the Republican Party’s right wing.

Graham isn’t up for reelection until 2014—a lifetime in an industry that measures who wins and loses each hour on cable TV. But already, the right is assembling a list of likely primary contenders.

“He’s got the political skin of a South Florida alligator,” Republican veteran Katon Dawson says.

The upshot, according to a variety of South Carolina veterans: a challenge from the right is likely. But even some of Graham’s detractors bet on him to survive.

South Carolina Tea Partiers are mad at Graham both for personal and political reasons. Ever since his buddy John McCain bagged his maverick, deal-making persona and tacked hard to the right to survive his own primary challenger, Graham has become the veteran Republican senator most likely to reach across the aisle to work with Senate Democrats and the White House. Such behavior is a big no-no with proponents of the Party of No. Graham initially backed a climate change bill with Sen. John Kerry and Sen. Joe Lieberman. He’s supported the closure of Guantanamo Bay. He’s been out front on immigration reform too. And then, just in case all that didn’t agitate the far right enough, Graham stuck a finger in the eye of the Tea Party in a recent interview with The New York Times.

“The problem with the Tea Party, I think it’s just unsustainable because they can never come up with a coherent vision for governing the country. It will die out,” Graham said.

The Tea Party, not surprisingly, feels the same way.

“Unfortunately, we have to wait until 2014. We have to wait, but we will be targeting him,” Allen Olson, head of the Columbia, South Carolina Tea Party says. “Right now, he is alienating not only the Tea Party but a large number of his base. We are sustainable. We are going to make it our mission to remind voters what a RINO”—Republican in Name Only—“he is.”

Signs around the country suggest that any Republican straying too far to the center is courting trouble. Utah Sen. Bob Bennett was bounced from his state’s primary after 17 years in office. South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis didn’t break 30 percent in his primary contest with prosecutor Trey Gowdy. (He later blamed the demagoguery of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin for the debacle). And South Carolina is certainly trending rightward, as the rise of GOP gubernatorial nominee Nikki Haley and U.S. House candidate Tim Scott attest. Graham’s junior colleague in the Senate, Jim DeMint, is outflanking him on the right—having emerged as perhaps the Tea Party’s staunchest supporter on Capitol Hill. (DeMint is seeding ballots throughout the country with ideological kin; Junior DeMints, they’re called).

So why then do leading South Carolina voices in both major parties say Graham is secure?

For starters, Graham and his supporters will argue that despite the far right’s protestations, he is no liberal. Graham has voted with the Republican Party 92.4 percent of the time since he entered Congress in 1991. He will also tout his sterling ranking from the American Conservative Union. And his record offers plenty for fiscal conservatives to admire; he opposed the Obama stimulus and wants to extend Bush tax cuts.

“What I see around the state is that the Republican Party in this state is much more concerned about fiscal issues. There are no litmus tests except, are you going to try to cut the federal deficit? Are you strong on defense? He meets those criteria,” says Dick Harpootlian, former chair of the state Democratic Party.

Also working in Graham’s favor: South Carolina is a state that has, at least traditionally, liked letting its leaders stick around. Strom Thurmond’s stay in the Senate stretched for 47 years, the second longest period served in Senate history. Sen. Fritz Hollings held onto his seat for 39 years.

Graham is a top-notch campaigner with a war chest unlikely to be matched by any Republican challenger. Already, four years from election season, Graham has nearly $3 million tucked away. It will also be difficult for the South Carolina Republican establishment, even those championed by the Tea Party, to raise money against Graham. Take Mick Mulvaney, supported by Sarah Palin in his run against Rep. John Spratt in the 5th Congressional District. Last month, Graham hosted a fundraiser for Mulvaney in Greenville. Mulvaney’s likely to remember that favor come Graham’s re-election campaign.

And Democrats know better than to underestimate him.

Speaking of Graham’s 2002 campaign, Harpootlian says, “Lindsey Graham kicked our asses. He has a great sense for where the resonance is with the average voter. I think anybody that is going to count him out on a vote on a Supreme Court nomination…I mean, good golly.”

Leading Republicans feel the same way.

“Lindsey has an end game for just about everything I have seen him do,” says Katon Dawson, the former state GOP chair, who narrowly lost to Michael Steele in last year’s contest to lead the Republican National Committee.

“He’s got the political skin of a South Florida alligator,” Dawson says. Still, Dawson wouldn’t rule out the possibility of challenging Graham come 2014.

“All options are open,” he says. “I don’t think it would be prudent to make any decision now.”

“Lindsey has been known to pick a fight,” Dawson says about the senator’s spat with the Tea Party. “The question is how big a fight he is going to pick this time.”

Olson, the South Carolina Tea Party leader, says he’d like to see besmirched Gov. Mark Sanford take on Graham.

“If he can overcome his infidelity issues, his core convictions are Tea Party principles. He could be embraced by the Tea Party,” Olson says.

The biggest imponderable, says Harpootlian, is whether the Tea Party still be considered vital when Graham stands for re-election—and whether the anger that’s fueled the movement this year will linger on.

As Harpootlian puts it: “Can they stay pissed at him for four more years?”

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.