Lindsey Graham was supposed to be the Dick Lugar of the 2014 cycle. Instead, he may be the Orrin Hatch. Even tea partiers in South Carolina admit he probably has a smooth path to the nomination and then to reelection.
Graham has consistently irked conservatives. He voted to confirm Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. He supports the DREAM Act and was one of the chief architects of the 2007 immigration legislation that was widely derided by conservatives as an amnesty. The Club for Growth — which helped topple Indiana’s Lugar and Utah’s Bob Bennett — announced last fall that Graham would be a top target for the group.
Yet South Carolina tea partiers admit that chances are good Graham will face no serious opponent. “Lindsey Graham’s got an easy path to reelection,” glumly admits Colin Lindell, founder of the Palmetto State’s Aiken County Tea Party. “People would love to see someone challenge him, but the problem is there is no real serious contender who can gather the support.”
“There’s nobody viable to go up against him,” agrees Allan Olson who founded the Columbia Tea Party. (He is no longer an active member, but he remains a tea partier.) “He’s got too much of a war chest,” Olson adds. Indeed, Graham has already collected approximately $4.5 million.
Graham’s war chest is one reason state tea partiers are dubious about the chances that state senator Lee Bright — who is reportedly considering running — can mount a successful candidacy. “He would absolutely vote correctly,” says Spartanburg Tea Party organizer Karen Martin, “but I’m just not sure that he has the fundraising capability.” Martin, for her part, is holding out hope that a Graham alternative — perhaps someone from the private sector — will emerge in upcoming months.
Another fact in Graham’s favor: None of the Republican House members in the state appear interested in following in Tim Scott’s footsteps and switching to the Senate. Conservative stars Mick Mulvaney and Joe Wilson have both ruled out running against Graham. House Republicans Trey Gowdy and Jeff Duncan have not hinted at challenging Graham. According to Republican insiders, Graham has made a point of developing relationships with the GOP members of the South Carolina delegation. He’s also attended several tea-party-related meetings on Capitol Hill.
But while Graham’s outreach may have swayed some, South Carolina tea partiers aren’t convinced. “It was just absolute pandering,” Martin remarks of Graham’s outreach to the tea party. “He’s attended a couple of meetings here and there, and tried to explain how valuable he is to the state of South Carolina with his seniority and with his seats on the Judiciary and Armed Services committees. But then when questioned on his votes for Sotomayor and Kagan or his reach across the aisle or all his stances on amnesty, he just really doesn’t give very good answers.”
For now, without a candidate and up against Graham’s war chest and name ID — he polled eleven points ahead of a generic “more conservative Republican” in a December Public Policy Polling survey — tea partiers have little reason to be optimistic about overthrowing Graham in next year’s primary.
“It’s a disappointment for a lot of conservatives,” says Lindell, noting that plenty of South Carolinians support Graham on national-security issues but wish he had different positions on domestic matters. “We’d much rather have someone who is the total package.”