COLUMBIA U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham offered his perspective Wednesday on the Tea Party movement, after soundly defeating six Republican rivals in Tuesday’s primary.
His win, Graham told reporters at the Governor’s Mansion, “tells me that plenty of people in the Tea Party saw the criticism against me as being off base.”
“When the Tea Party looked at me, they didn't see an enemy,” Graham said. “They saw a guy who understood the threats we faced as a nation, and they like the fact that I am a strong national security Republican.”
Graham won 56 percent of Tuesday’s S.C. Republican primary vote against his foes, most of whom heavily courted Tea Party groups in an effort to unseat the two-term incumbent. With his win, the Seneca Republican avoided a runoff and claimed the right to define his victory — and his Tea Party opposition — on his own terms.
Across the country, political candidates and observers are doing the same: Trying to make sense of how some establishment Republicans beat back Tea Party challengers and others lost, and what those victories and losses mean for the Tea Party movement, locally and nationally.
Tea Party activists in South Carolina have their take on Tuesday’s GOP primary as well.
They say they tried to build an alliance to support a single Graham challenger. But they could not agree on a candidate.
Divided, they encouraged Graham’s challengers to back the candidate who could push Graham to a runoff. That effort failed, too.
State Sen. Lee Bright, the Spartanburg Republican who finished a distant second to Graham with 15 percent of the vote, said the effort to beat Graham failed because national groups left him and Graham’s other challengers to “fight this battle alone.”
“At the end of the day, you have to nationalize a race of this magnitude,” Bright said late last week.
‘Splintered and poorly funded’
That nationalize-the-race strategy has been hit or miss in other contests.
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., leveled a hit on the Tea Party when he crushed Tea Party-hyped and well-funded Matt Bevin in a primary race last month.
But in Virginia, some Republicans read U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning upset loss Tuesday to economics professor Dave Brat as a wake-up call to mainstream Republicans. An outraged electorate will not be ignored, they warn.
In Mississippi, incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran also could be headed for defeat in a June 24 runoff against Tea Party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel.
Political scientists caution against drawing sweeping conclusions about the Tea Party, its influence and future based on recent contests. The outcome of an individual race can depend on many things — the size of a district, the issues important to voters and how well the candidates campaign.
In Virginia, Brat was not backed by any Tea Party groups, said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.
Also, Cantor lost in a congressional district with about 700,000 residents. The dynamics within a congressional district do not compare to those in a Senate race, in which there are millions of potential voters and upending an incumbent is much more difficult, said Jordan Ragusa, a College of Charleston political scientist.
There also are some similarities between incumbents who win and seem headed for defeat.
Both Graham and Cochran, for instance, are experienced GOP incumbents, easily cast as having been in Washington too long, Ragusa said.
But the contests in South Carolina and Mississippi also differ significantly.
Third-party political groups have spent $9 million in the Mississippi race to defeat Cochran, for example. In South Carolina, those groups spent less than $1,000 to target Graham, according to the latest campaign finance disclosures available.
Tracking the Tea Party’s evolution also is difficult because the movement is not “a party at all” but a grassroots movement, “splintered and poorly funded” at the national level, the University of Virginia’s Sabato added.
The Tea Party “is a faction of the GOP that waxes and wanes, depending on circumstances and candidates,” he said.
‘Not some fringe group’
In South Carolina, the Tea Party has more sympathizers than it does members.
Only about 1 in 8 S.C. Republicans identifies as a Tea Part member today, down from about 1 in 3 in 2010, according to a recent Winthrop Poll.
Fifty-seven percent of S.C. Republicans still say they agree with the Tea Party’s principles, but support for those principles is down too, from 77 percent in 2010.
Before the election, Graham characterized the Tea Party as a vocal minority, adding that he always knew that being loud did not mean “a lot.”
Tea Partiers, of course, disagree.
Joe Dugan, a Myrtle Beach activist who has been trying to build the movement, said the “Tea Party itself is not some fringe group. It is everyday Americans who want free markets and want to follow the Constitution.”
Dugan said that when S.C. Tea Party leaders could not agree on a single challenger to Graham, their compromise decision was to encourage the anti-Graham candidates to back each other if one of them made it into a runoff with the incumbent.
Some, but not all, of the candidates agreed on that compromise.
Dugan, the founder of the S.C. Tea Party Coalition and its annual convention, said the movement’s “critical mass has to come with education, and it has to be education of every man, not necessarily the people who are engaged in politics right now.”
This year, the Tea Party’s third annual S.C. convention drew more than 50 speakers, including some of South Carolina’s federal and state politicians, and activists from around the country. Dugan said 600 people attended the conference, which also was broadcast online.
Despite being invited, Graham did not attend the convention and was left to convey his message in almost weekly campaign ads, Dugan said.
Graham ended up out-fundraising his six challengers by about four dollars for every dollar they raised, combined.
“It was awfully difficult to fight against the kind of money that Senator Graham had,” Dugan said.
Making sense of 56 percent
Graham’s critics point to that money — much of it from outside South Carolina — as making the difference in renominating the incumbent.
They say Graham’s margin of victory, lower this year than in 2008, is evidence of discontent with the Seneca Republican. In 2008, they note, Graham took 67 percent of the vote to beat challenger Buddy Witherspoon in the GOP primary.
But political scientists say Graham did well to win 56 percent.
Typically, primaries attract only the most faithful of party members. In the S.C. GOP primary that means “the most conservative voters in South Carolina,” not a broader representation of the GOP, said College of Charleston political scientist Ragusa.
“It’s impressive to garner 56 percent in a seven-person race, period,” said Sabato, the University of Virginia political scientist.
“Months ago, many Republicans I consulted thought Graham would be at least be forced into a runoff,” Sabato said, adding that the low quality of Graham’s largely unknown challengers played a role in the incumbent’s success.
“(If) Graham had handpicked his half-dozen opponents, he probably couldn’t have chosen a weaker lot—little money, name recognition or momentum.”
One of South Carolina’s Republican congressmen, elected in the Tea Party-powered election of 2010, could have given Graham tougher competition, Sabato said.
‘Lining their pockets’
Asked what Tuesday’s loss means for S.C. Tea Partiers and whether the faction needs more organization, Bright declined to place any blame on grassroots efforts.
The problem was low voter turnout, a result of voters getting limited information, Bright said.
“There were more people at the church enlisting their kids in summer camp than there were voting in the Republican primary,” he said. “There is a price that's going to be paid for that.”
Informing voters means buying ads, which means raising money, Bright said, criticizing the national groups that never came through for him or his fellow challengers. He said he has grown “jaded” about them.
“The problem is, you've got the folks who are the heads of these organizations who have become a part of the establishment themselves,” Bright said. “There's a lot of money to be made in the liberty movement, and they're lining their pockets.
“They're being like the typical consultants. They want to rush in and take credit for the victories.”
The Tea Party’s loosely aligned effort to beat Graham also failed to resonate Wednesday with Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, who joined Graham at the Governor’s Mansion to talk to reporters.
Haley, whose original backing within the GOP came from Tea Party groups, and Scott, a Tea Party favorite, described the Tea Party less in terms of political clout at the ballot box and more in terms of how it influences the Republican Party’s ideas.
Asked what the defeat of Graham’s Tea Party-aligned challengers meant for the movement’s future in South Carolina, Haley said, “I strongly believe in the Tea Party. But I don't think the Tea Party put up candidates. I think you had people that stepped up that decided to run.
“The Tea Party is not about elections,” Haley added. It’s about “things that we fight for.”
The movement, Haley said, is about being “‘Taxed Enough Already’ — just trying to make sure that government remembers its role and doesn't overstep. Anybody trying to make it more or less than that is wrong, and anybody trying to diminish the strength of the Tea Party is wrong.”
Scott said the Tea Party is a "conservative spark within the Republican construct,” more about varying ideas than about competing factions. Diverse opinions lead to a better conversation, he said.
On Wednesday, Graham even tried to align himself with the Tea Party, saying his approval rating is similar to the Tea Party’s, which means they share similar beliefs.
“My enemy is not the Tea Party,” he said. “My enemy is the status quo. My enemy is liberal Democrats who are trying to take our country and turn it upside down. They are my political enemy.
“When I talk to the Tea Party about my solution on immigration, most of 'em understand,. ‘At least, he's trying.’”
Reach Self at (803)771-8658