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.
This activist conservative base helped propel previously little-known state legislator Nikki Haley to victory in the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary and into the governor’s office. The same political energy helped House Republicans finally defeat Budget Chairman John Spratt (D) in 2010 after years of trying.
Graham said he has no plans to change his style, which at times has steered him into high-profile alliances with liberal Democrats on national, hot-button issues such as immigration and climate change. Graham also made clear he would continue to push for federal spending earmarks on local projects vital to South Carolina’s economy, such as the modernization of Charleston’s seaport. Conservatives like DeMint are adamantly opposed.
But Graham, perhaps aware of the trouble he sometimes causes himself with South Carolina’s GOP base, also defended his record as staunchly and consistently conservative on the issues that matter most to his constituents.
“I am a fiscal conservative and got the record to prove it. I’m a social conservative and got the record to prove it,” Graham said. “I try to solve problems that need to be solved. I think most people appreciate that.”
That’s a bit toned down from an interview last year with the New York Times. In the July 2010 article, Graham said the tea party movement is “just unsustainable because they can never come up with a coherent vision for governing the country.”
“It will die out,” he said, comments that fanned the flames as tea partyers asked him to vote against Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court nomination. (He supported her.)
Even Republicans with strong ties to the party’s conservative base are skeptical of Graham’s supposed vulnerability, although they acknowledge his problems and expect him to face a primary challenge of some sort.
Lawton conceded Graham would be difficult to beat in a primary, in large part because the anti-Graham wing of the South Carolina GOP is composed of a collection of competing groups that are unlikely to coalesce behind a single candidate with the stature to beat the incumbent in a primary.
Graham, who has a broad following thanks in part to his frequent television appearances discussing foreign policy and national security, also has a significant financial advantage.
Although the Senator’s second-quarter fundraising results were not yet available, the $2.9 million he reported on hand at the end of March equaled enough to pay for nearly 12 weeks of television advertising at 1,000 gross ratings points in every media market in the state except in Charlotte, which serves the growing region of north central South Carolina.
Graham might also benefit from his warm relationship with DeMint, who through his Senate Conservatives Fund political action committee has supported several successful GOP Senate primary candidates nationwide. DeMint remains neutral in primaries involving incumbents. In South Carolina, where DeMint is widely popular — particularly among conservatives — such neutrality could be a boon to Graham.
“They are friendly,” said former South Carolina GOP Chairman Barry Wynn, a Spartanburg businessman who serves as DeMint’s campaign treasurer. “They don’t overlap 100 percent in their views. But in terms of collegiality, I don’t think there’s one bit of strain.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.