A couple of years back, Lindsey Graham had a bulls-eye on his back, at least among Tea Party types here in South Carolina.
The Charleston branch was so enraged with the senator’s work on climate change legislation in 2009 that it pushed the local GOP to formally censure him for “bipartisanship that continues to weaken the Republican brand and tarnish the ideals of freedom.”
Across the state in Greenville, equally livid activists constructed a wing tip-wearing effigy of the senator that they flushed down a fake toilet, mounted on the bed of a pick-up truck of course, as a part of a “RINO hunt” to symbolically eliminate Graham and other “Republicans in Name Only” from the Senate.
But after two years, a hugely successful midterm election, and almost a year of GOP control of the House of Representatives, Tea Party activists here and across the country seem to be losing some of their steam.
Gone is the white-hot rage that famously defined the town hall meetings of August 2009 and sent incumbents from both parties packing a year later.
In its place is much of what met Graham at a half-empty Tea Party town hall in North Charleston earlier this week: lingering frustration and continued anger with Washington, but a growing realization within the upstart movement that sustaining a revolution is harder than starting it—and that merely electing conservatives doesn’t guarantee they’ll buck the system they promised to overthrow.
“Most of the people in this room worked our tails off in the 2010 elections to elect conservative Republicans and we got this supercommittee,” one woman complained to Graham, who voted against the budget compromise that created the deficit-slashing panel. “If we’re going to work our butts off to give you a majority in both houses, how can you just hand your power over?”
That same disappointment could be seen across the country when 72-year-old Jerry Stotler of Ferron, Utah, attended a town hall meeting for Rep. Jason Chaffetz, an aggressive sophomore Republican and Tea Party favorite who also opposed the debt-ceiling deal.
“One of the most powerful words in the English language is ‘no.’ The Tea Party has failed to use their power of ‘no,’” Stotler told the Associated Press. “If they would’ve just stood strong on their principles, this [compromise] wouldn’t have happened."
Just as the grassroots activists appear less passionate, some of the Tea Party movement’s strongest potential dragon slayers have failed to gain traction in Republican primaries, or to even step up to the fight.
Chaffetz stunned local activists Monday with his announcement that he would not challenge incumbent Sen. Orin Hatch for his Senate seat in 2012, despite months of hints and eye winks that he would. Citing Hatch’s $3 million-plus fundraising advantage, Chaffetz said he would rather stay in his House seat instead of suffering a “multimillion-dollar blood bath” at the hands of Hatch and the Republican establishment.
In Virginia, former Tea Party leader Jamie Radtke is struggling to raise money against former Virginia governor, senator, and consummate insider George Allen. And in Maine, moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe picked up a crucial endorsement from the state’s Republican governor, Paul LePage, a Tea Party favorite, over her two more conservative primary opponents.
One senior Republican aide says the Senate races may not reflect a decline in Tea Party power as much as the determined efforts of senators like Hatch and Snowe to stay in the activists’ good graces after seeing such colleagues as Utah’s Robert Bennett sent home in 2010.
“The incumbents woke up and are taking nothing for granted,” the aide says.
Graham does not seem to be taking anything for granted either. Although he is not up for reelection until 2014, he regularly meets Tea Party groups across the state at events like the one in Charleston, where he praised such conservative Senate newcomers as Rand Paul and Mike Lee for focusing Washington on cutting the size and scope of government.
“The Tea Party has added an energy on the big issues we haven’t had before,” Graham told The Daily Beast after the meeting. “These people are fearless. They could care less about reelection. In that regard, they’re doing the nation a great service.”
He says the budget debate had created a welcome chance for him and the Tea Party to agree on something after years of sparring over his views on climate change and immigration reform, which local activists call “Grahamnesty.”
But if Graham’s job depends on winning over the Tea Party entirely, he did not act like it. He told the Charleston group that he still wants to work to pass comprehensive immigration reform and defiantly declared that he is “for clean air and clean water”—a position that hardly seems radical among mainstream voters, but triggers alarm among conservatives who want to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency and dispute the science behind climate change.
Graham also told The Daily Beast that Tea Party activists must do more than simply oppose ideas to if they want their movement to last.
“The question for the Tea Party is, what is your vision? I buy into their vision of limiting the size and scope of government. I’ve been doing that for years,” Graham says. “The problem that parties have, Tea Party, Republican Party, Democratic Party, is you can disconnect yourself from the people. The Tea Party has got to convince people that you can find common ground.”
Graham believes the Tea Party can find enough common ground on budget and government reform to appeal to a broad swath of the electorate. But a recent Gallup poll showed that most registered voters have soured on the Tea Party label. By a nearly two-to-one margin, 42 percent said they would be less likely to vote for such a congressional candidate endorsed by the Tea Party, compared to 23 percent who said they would be more likely to back them.
Not only is Graham unlikely to be labeled a “Tea Party” candidate in 2014, he’s usually listed by activists as among the most likely to draw a primary challenge from the right.
“Here’s my belief. I’m 56. And I want to get on with it,” he said. “I’m not worried about me in 2014, I’m worried about the country. I feel like the best politics for me is to do things that people want me to do, which is to change what got us into this mess to begin with.”
He may have some persuading to do. Bill Cromer, a chiropractor who attended the town hall, said he considers himself neither a Republican nor a Democrat, but wants to see Graham defeated in 2014.
“The inmates are running the asylum,” Cromer said. "And he’s one of them."