How Lindsey Graham Surmounted a Tea Party Challenge
Policy + Politics

How Lindsey Graham Surmounted a Tea Party Challenge

REUTERS/Jason Reed

Sen. Lindsey Graham seems headed for an easy victory Tuesday in South Carolina’s Republican primary election after suffering an early scare from Tea Party critics.

His strategy for fending off a tough challenge from the far right is in stunning contrast to Republican Sen. Thad Cochran’s inept performance in Mississippi that may have cost him his long-held Senate seat.

Graham and Cochran both had serious political problems to overcome in seeking another term. Cochran, 76, a six-term Senate veteran, had lost touch with his state and persisted in stressing the billions of dollars in federal money and projects he won for Mississippi over the decades even after pork-barrel politics had gone out of favor. He even admitted he wasn’t that familiar with the Tea Party.

Related: GOP Mississippi Run-Off Race Takes Ugly New Turn

Meanwhile, Graham’s brand of mainstream, business-oriented Republicanism infuriated Tea Party activists, dating back to his 2008 vote for the TARP bailout, his 2010 votes to confirm liberal Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, and his endorsement of climate change legislation.

His aggressive backing of the bipartisan immigration reform package in the Senate last year and other deals with Democrats rendered Graham persona non grata among many Republicans in his home state.

Cochran waited far too long to begin raising money and to mount a serious counteroffensive to McDaniel, a hard charging lawyer and former conservative radio host. Last Tuesday, McDaniel won the GOP primary by a sliver, 49.5 percent to Cochran’s 49 percent. The victory instantly catapulted McDaniel to front-runner status in the run off and energized an army of national Tea Party groups.

Graham, 58, shrewdly began maneuvering two years ago to coopt any really tough challengers while beginning to raise a massive campaign war chest he knew he would need to survive and mount a vigorous reelection campaign. 

And even while many in his state party remain bitter and distrustful of Graham, the former Air Force lawyer and House member has gradually shifted his rhetoric and positions far to the right to try to placate his opponents. 

For instance, he surprised some conservatives last week by warning that Republican lawmakers would call for President Obama’s impeachment if he released more prisoners from Guantanamo Bay without congressional approval, in the wake of the swap of five Taliban prisoners for or U.S. sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. 

“It’s going to be impossible for them to flow prisoners out of Gitmo now without a huge backlash,” declared Graham, who was a member of the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998. “There will be people on our side calling for his impeachment if he did that.” 

Related: Tea Party Backers, with Hidden Agendas, Aim at ‘RINOs’   

Ironically, it’s remotely possible that Graham could end up in the same boat as Cochran by the end of today– falling just shy of the 50 percent margin needed to avoid a run-off election. But unlike Cochran who narrowly lost to McDaniel in the primary, Graham holds a massive lead over his six conservative challengers and would almost certainly prevail in a runoff. 

The Clemson University Palmetto Poll, released on Thursday, gave Graham plenty of reason to be optimistic. The survey showed the two-term Republican leading his nearest rival, state Senator Lee Bright, by a margin of 49 percent to 9 percent. None of the other five challengers – dismissed as poorly financed “munchkins” by some - registers with more than 3 percent support. 

Moreover, the poll found that 35 percent of likely Republican primary voters were undecided. If even a small percentage of those voters opt for Graham today, he will easily surpass the 50 percent threshold required to avoid a runoff. 

David Woodard, the Thurmond Professor of Political Science at Clemson who supervised the survey, predicted that Graham will sail to victory today on a tide of more than $8.5 million in campaign spending and media buys since January. 

“He’s on every television station, he’s on every radio station and he’s just done his homework,” Woodard said in an interview on Monday. “He has effectively muted his opponents, because none of them can match him, dollar for dollar.” 

Related: A New Tidal Wave of Money Could Decide Senate Races    

“He’s just flooded everybody, like a tsunami,” Woodard added.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), who was appointed by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley to fill the unexpired term of former Republican Sen. Jim DeMint, is running against Randall Young of Greenville for the party nomination. Scott, a former House member, is expected to easily win the nomination and move on to the general election. 

According to a report by Politico last spring, Graham first recognized the threat to his reelection prospects years before it had a chance to form — and knew immediately what he had to do. After the 2010 Tea Party wave thrust young conservatives into four U.S. House seats and the governorship in South Carolina, right wing groups were eager to persuade one of the newly elected lawmakers to challenge the deal-making Graham, according to the report. 

Related: 5 Government Projects That Are Costing Us Billions 

Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a favorite of the grass roots, was high on their list of possible recruits for the Senate challenge. But when Graham was tipped off that Mulvaney wanted a seat on the House Financial Services Committee, he quietly lobbied House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to make sure he got it.

Graham cultivated friendships with Mulvaney and three other House Republican newcomers - Jeff Duncan, Trey Gowdy and Tim Scott - in a bid to keep them out of the Senate contest. Scott was removed as a potential rival after he was appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley to fill the vacancy in the other Senate seat last year.

“He showed them the ropes and he introduced them to people,” Woodard said of Graham’s dealings with the House Republican newcomers. “He kind of took them under his wing and they appreciated that. So they’re not going to turn on him.”

During a one-hour debate of the South Carolina GOP senate candidates last weekend, Graham expressed confidence he would win the nomination outright today.

"The reason I'm going to win the primary, overwhelmingly I hope, is I'm a Ronald Reagan Republican," Graham said.

"The Democrats know that if I win, I will beat the Democrat candidate's brains out. They know that. That's why they won't spend 15 cents to beat me," he added.

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