Lindsey Graham has been the Tea Party’s Public Enemy #1 since the movement sprang to life in 2009. With a vitriol usually reserved for rapists and traitors, some of the most extreme Palmetto State conservatives have burned Graham in effigy and then flushed him down a toilet; derided him as a “war mongering, cowardly, fiscal liberal whore;” openly questioned the unmarried senator’s sexuality with the label “Miss Lindsey,” and promised Low Country voters a 2014 primary challenge against Graham of epic proportions. “Buckle your seat belts, South Carolina,” teased the conservative blog FITSNews.com in 2013, “Another brutal GOP primary season is about to unfold.”
But as primary day dawns Tuesday in South Carolina, Graham’s path to reelection has proven to be more boring than brutal. The half-dozen subpar challengers he faces are all wallowing in the single digits, while Graham has dominated the field throughout. The only real suspense on election night will be whether Graham wins with more or less than 50% of the vote. Less than 50% would put him into a runoff. More than 50% will close the chapter on the biggest nothing-burger in the Tea Party’s uneven electoral history, a potential non-upset that says as much about Graham’s focus and political savvy as it does about the neutered state of the Tea Party in South Carolina.
“He’s going to win outright,” predicted Allen Olson, the founder of the Columbia, S.C., Tea Party. Unlike the most vocal of Graham’s Tea Party haters, Olson said he is for limited government, balanced budgets, and Lindsey Graham. “I like the fact that he fights for conservative principles and that, instead of acting like Ted Cruz, where it’s my-way-or-the-highway, Lindsey Graham is willing to at least negotiate and talk with the Democrats and come to a compromise.”
Olson also said that after years of activism, he is no longer active with his own Tea Party, which he said has strayed from its roots in fiscal conservatism into pet political crusades of individual members. “I still consider myself a member of the Tea Party as it started out, but not what it’s become,” he said. “I believe in limited government, but I also believe in responsible government. Saying no to everything is not responsible government.”
Olson’s drift from the Tea Party is not unique in the state, but it is indicative of why the Tea Party isn’t about to knock Graham out in South Carolina. Despite all the bluster, he’s just more popular than they are. While Graham has a 43% approval rating that is trending upward, fewer than 6% of registered voters in the state identified as members of the Tea Party in a Winthrop University poll last month. A similar 2013 poll found that less than 10% of registered Republicans considered themselves Tea Party members.
While Graham may be on the outs with some Tea Partiers, he has shored up his support among many of the state’s key conservative constituencies. According to LaDonna Ryggs, chairwoman of the Spartanburg County GOP, Graham is “a hero” to the significant pro-life forces in the state, a go-to dealmaker for business interests, and a reliable ally for the defense industry and pro-Israel Christian conservatives.
While Graham may be on the outs with some Tea Partiers, he has shored up his support among many of the state’s key conservative constituencies.
That broad support has helped him raise a massive $11 million for his race, a sum of money that would scare off any potential rival. But the biggest key to Graham’s success in outflanking his right flank in 2014 has been the fact that, even after pushing for immigration reform, entertaining climate legislation, and voting for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, none of the state’s six sitting Republican congressmen challenged Graham for his job, including talented up-and-comers like Reps. Trey Gowdy or Mick Mulvaney.
“They like the guy. They are friends,” Ryggs said of the House delegation’s relationship with Graham. “Lindsey is Mark Sanford’s son’s godfather. Trey Gowdy is good friends with Lindsey. Plus Lindsey served in the state house and Mick Mulvaney and Jeff Duncan have known him through that. A lot of people don’t realize that he is the senior statesman that keeps that group together.”
But even friendship in politics has its limits and Politico recently detailed the lengths Graham has gone to keep Gowdy, Mulvaney, and other potential rivals happily serving in the House instead of mounting a challenge against him, including his consistent lobbying on their behalf for their districts, or working with John Boehner to get Mulvaney a plum committee assignment to keep him happy in his day job.
With the House members on the sidelines, Tea Party groups could have come together to get behind one candidate as a single alternative to Graham in 2014, but that never happened. Instead, six candidates claiming to be the most conservative crowded into the field one by one and proceeded to divide the 51% of possible anti-Graham votes among themselves, leaving Graham with an open shot at keeping his job.
“I don’t know if it was their egos or what, but they couldn’t just decide on a single person,” Ryggs said. “The more people that got into it, the less credible it seemed.”