COLUMBIA, S.C. — Sen. Lindsey Graham is the kind of Republican whom tea party activists want to boot from the Senate, though even they think he’d be hard to oust in a primary three years from now.
If South Carolina’s political insiders are correct, Graham has little to worry about in 2014 despite a flirtation with Democrats on politically explosive issues that has enraged many in South Carolina’s tea-party-influenced, conservative GOP base.
That anger was on display recently in Greenville, S.C., when tea party activists attending a presidential campaign rally for Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) sported “RINO Hunter” T-shirts and vowed to oust insufficiently conservative Republicans.
Chris Lawton, a self-described “liberty activist” from Greenville, said his compatriots oppose Graham’s re-election partly because of his votes to confirm President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominees and partly because they view him as not being a strong constitutionalist.
“The overall view of the tea party is that Lindsey’s got to go,” Lawton said in a telephone interview. “Personally, I’d like to see him defeated.”
But Graham does not appear alarmed.
“The people who want 100 percent agreement are never going to support me. But that’s not a majority of” South Carolina Republicans, Graham told Roll Call in an interview last week. “I’ve never been worried about having people disagree with me. There are people in politics who judge you on the one out of 10 times you disagree with them. Most people don’t.”
Several Palmetto State Republicans interviewed for this story predicted Graham would survive any intraparty opposition without much difficulty, citing the Senator’s fundraising prowess, his positioning on key issues such as abortion and health care, his popularity among the rank and file and his general political skill at walking the fine line between bipartisan dealmaker and rigid ideologue.
“Has Sen. Graham disappointed and angered conservatives in South Carolina? Absolutely. But no one with the money, fundraising ability and credibility has stepped up to challenge him. Unless something resembling that candidate emerges, he will beat minor opposition in his next primary and easily win re-election,” said a Republican operative based in the state capital of Columbia.
The independent-minded Graham won a second term in 2008 with minimal effort, defeating a primary challenger by nearly 34 points while garnering 67 percent of the vote, before cruising to victory in the general election with 58 percent in overwhelmingly Republican South Carolina. The state’s primaries are open to all voters, who don’t register by party.
In the aftermath of the 2010 elections, the state GOP controls all levers of government and all but one House seat. Not everyone — particularly in Washington — expects Graham to enjoy a similarly smooth ride in 2014, given the rise of a tea party movement that includes Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) among its champions.
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