It’s no secret that Sen. Lindsey Graham is in the fight of his political life in the closing days of his campaign to win reelection to the U.S. Senate.
“I’m getting overwhelmed,” Graham begged on-air with Fox News’ Sean Hannity last month, as his Democratic rival Jaime Harrison brought in a record-shattering $57 million in donations to unseat him. “Help me—they’re killing me money-wise. Help me.”
But with ersatz ally President Donald Trump nowhere to be seen, a group that once despised Graham—and whose most prominent members have spent months propping up bizarre conspiracy theories, posting wildly racist content on social media, and undermining confidence public health guidelines in the midst of the pandemic—are coming to the rescue.
The question is, does Graham want their help?
“This is not a time for us to be squabbling over differences of opinion,” Pressley Stutts, chair of the Greenville Tea Party, said at an event on Wednesday afternoon, before introducing nearly a dozen grassroots conservative leaders “to stand tall” with Graham.
“Sen. Graham is in the race of his life,” said Stutts, introducing conservative activists who lambasted Harrison—or “Harris,” as several of them called him—for being a “Marxist-Leninist” who would impose socialism on South Carolina.
Sam Manley, a conservative podcaster, put the stakes of the race directly: “If you ever vote your way into socialism, you’ll have to shoot your way out.”
This ringing endorsement for Graham’s re-election—which included Michael LaPierre, who tried to primary Graham this year—amounts to a cease-fire between the Palmetto State’s most well-known elected official and a coterie of some of his most dedicated trolls. During the Tea Party wave in 2010, Graham—once seen as one of the most mainstream members of the Republican Party—became one of the movement’s most loathed “RINOs,” or Republicans In Name Only. Leaders of the state’s Tea Party chapters attempted to recruit then-Gov. Mark Sanford to primary Graham after he voted to confirm Justice Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, and one speaker at a Greenville Tea Party rally that year made accused Graham of “trying to sell out your own countrymen” to avoid being outed.
For his part, Graham once relished his battles with the state’s most conservative activists, calling the inter-party skirmishes “more fun than any time I’ve been in politics,” but with polls showing Graham in a statistical dead heat with Harrison, the senator is scrambling to resolve those well-documented problems with voters who have largely moved from the Tea Party to Team MAGA—even though the group’s brand of politics couldn’t be less in sync with Graham’s own.
Stutts, the group’s chair, is a longtime critic of vaccinations, and has publicly discouraged people from wearing face masks during the coronavirus pandemic and spread the conspiracy theory that billionaire Bill Gates is working to reduce the human population.
Stutts has even claimed in an April interview that a potential vaccine for COVID-19 could possibly “contain a microchip” for the government to track its citizens.
“Even if it doesn’t contain a microchip, I could foresee the day, because right now you have to show your ID or your passport and here in South Carolina, we have to get that real ID just to fly commercially,” Stutts said on a conservative YouTube vlog at the time. “And I can see the point where they're going to say, okay, show me your vaccination papers next.”
At one Greenville Tea Party event in 2018, Stutts even hosted a talk with Jennifer Smith, who described herself as a “naturopath,” who referenced the baseless theory that vaccines cause autism and said that she did not get her newborn son vaccinated for Hepatitus B because he was “not a promiscuous homosexual” or an IV drug user.
Among the group’s other featured speakers at recent events include John Guandolo, the leader of a Dallas-based anti-Muslim group who was forced last year to pay $600,000 in a civil lawsuit for assaulting a county sheriff after the man confronted him about passing around hate literature at a meeting of the National Sheriffs’ Association.
The group has also held protests against social distancing rules in South Carolina, which Graham has said are critical to stopping the spread of the virus, despite rising rates of infection in the state.
“Tired of putting up with an onerous and inept government?” the group posted on Facebook in September. “Join us September 15th and let your voice be heard, too. Our legislators need to know that we've had enough! Show up. Stand up. Speak up! It's your family that has been negatively affected… #ThugArmy mount up!!”
Greenville Tea Party members and business partners have made even more extreme claims. Dan Harvell, a taxpayer advocate who spoke at Wednesday’s event and said that he was supporting Graham for the sake of “the traditional American values that we will have for our children,” has posted memes claiming that Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic nominee for vice president, slept her way to becoming San Francisco’s district attorney, and has called former first lady Michelle Obama a “race-baiter.”
The Graham campaign did not respond to a request for comment about whether he disavowed the support of the Greenville Tea Party and its members, and neither did the group. But state Democrats called the dynamic of Graham playing along with a group he once despised the latest in a long arc of allowances the senator has made under Trump.
“This is yet another demonstration of the extreme lengths Sen. Graham is going to in order to save his flailing campaign,” said Manuel Bonder, coordinated campaign spokesperson for the South Carolina Democratic Party. “Instead of scrambling to consolidate his support amongst fringe conspiracy theorists who know he is a hypocrite, Sen. Graham should focus on leading South Carolina through this crisis and delivering the relief working families and businesses desperately need.”