Only about one in eight S.C. Republicans consider themselves members of the Tea Party today, down from about one in three in 2010, according to the Winthrop Poll. A majority of S.C. Republicans still say they agree with the Tea Party’s principles, but support for those principles is down too.
A West Columbia real estate agent says he wants God in government. A Columbia Army veteran says she always votes for a strong military. And an African-American businessman says he likes the GOP’s ideas for improving education.
A Ridgeway Tea Party activist says he wants a senator who will vote his convictions, not make deals. Meanwhile, a young Republican from Anderson – pro-life and pro-gun rights – says she is glad her college peers are willing to question U.S. military conflicts and whether the government should dictate who gets to marry.
Those five Republicans are among the diverse voices who will pick the U.S. Senate candidate that they think best reflects their values in the June 10 primary for the seat now held by two-term incumbent Lindsey Graham.
Graham, of Seneca, faces six Republican challengers in his bid to win a third term: Columbia pastor Det Bowers, state Sen. Lee Bright of Spartanburg, Easley businessman Richard Cash, Orangeburg attorney Bill Connor, Columbia attorney Benjamin Dunn, and Charleston public relations executive Nancy Mace.
The contest mirrors a national narrative about a war being waged for control of the GOP between deep-pocketed incumbents, derisively referred to as the “establishment” by their opponents, and Tea Party challengers, who tout their “true conservative” credentials.
In South Carolina, that battle pits those who have been shaping the state’s dominant party for years against those who could shape its future.
Mainstream Republicans are more “center right,” according to one longtime GOP leader. The divisive challenge to Graham comes from a “vocal minority” within the GOP, intent on pushing the party further right and, potentially, “off the deep end,” he adds.
But, even if Graham wins his party’s nomination next month, the GOP’s Tea Party wing – with its “Taxed Enough Already” philosophy – has succeeded in one way, said Scott Buchanan, a Citadel political science professor.
“The Tea Party has forced Republicans and, to some degree, Lindsey Graham to take issue positions that are more to the right.”
Graham has tacked right over the past year, touting issues and positions that unite the mainstream and its more right-wing critics.
For example, Graham relentlessly has accused Democratic President Barack Obama of missing signs of escalating dangers in Libya that led to an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the deaths of four Americans, a charge that echoes throughout grass-roots conservative groups.
To appeal to social conservatives, Graham also has sponsored a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks, earning him an endorsement from the National Right to Life political action committee.
He also has touted his ownership of an AR-15, taking pictures at shooting ranges that smack of election-season antics.
But his supporters say those positions are consistent for Graham. And at a recent campaign event at Columbia’s Riverbanks zoo, Graham’s tone – between light-hearted jokes about Baptists and Presbyterians – was less high-pitched and his demeanor less flashy.
Instead, Graham openly criticized his party. He talked about the work the GOP has to do to connect with minorities, to offer an alternative to Obama’s health-care law and to get its message right on immigration reform.
Calling for self-deportation of illegal immigrants, as some of his challengers have, misses the point, Graham told the crowd. “Sgt. Gonzales is not going to let his grandma walk back to Mexico.”
Graham’s politics are “center-right,” said Tony Denny, a former S.C. GOP executive director and a member of Graham’s 5,000-strong network of grassroots supporters.
While the senator’s opponents “run the risk of being too narrow in their approach” and potentially going “off the deep end,” Graham’s approach is “mainstream conservative,” Denny said. “That’s what’s going to carry the day.”
Abandoning ‘party loyalty’
Polling suggests the Tea Party’s political power has waned in recent years in South Carolina.
Only 12 percent of self-identified S.C. Republicans surveyed in a February Winthrop Poll described themselves as being Tea Party members, down from 30 percent in 2010. Also, the number of S.C. Republicans who say they agree with Tea Party principles has dropped – to 57 percent in February from 77 percent in October 2010.
Nationally, the Tea Party’s clout within the GOP also is waning.
In 2010, Tea Party-backed GOP candidates Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz were elected to the U.S. Senate in Florida, Kentucky and Texas, respectively. This year, however, establishment Republicans in other states easily are fending off Tea Party challengers, most recently in Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell crushed his opponent.
“If you’re Lindsey Graham, you’ve got to look at these recent primaries in other states, and he’s got to have a smile on his face,” The Citadel’s Buchanan said.
Still, some conservatives have found a voice in the Tea Party movement, away from the GOP’s mainstream.
Those conservatives include Ridgeway’s Kevin Thomas, who says the “Taxed Enough Already” network of political groups has been successful, spreading its message through inexpensive letter-writing campaigns and social media posts.
Thomas, the chairman of the Fairfield County GOP and former Graham supporter, is backing state Sen. Bright in the June 10 Republican primary.
Reducing taxes and regulation, and protecting marriage and the unborn are his top priorities, said Thomas, a political minority in a county where 65 percent of voters cast their ballots for Obama for president in 2008 and 60 percent voted for little-known Democrat Bob Conley over Graham in that year’s U.S. Senate race.
But Thomas says that Bright’s 100 percent rating with the limited-government S.C. Club for Growth group makes him the “State House’s equivalent to Jim DeMint,” the former U.S. senator from the Upstate who became a national Tea Party hero for his ideological adherence to shrinking government.
Thomas said he previously had supported Graham, working as a precinct captain “out of party loyalty” and a sense among conservatives that Graham “is a Republican, he’s our guy, we should support him.”
But not this year.
Instead, the Fairfield GOP and a minority of other S.C. county parties have censured Graham publicly.
“Republicans should be calling out Republicans when they’re not doing things right,” Thomas said, adding, Graham “went off the reservation” on four issues: supporting a bill that would require the collection of existing internet sales taxes, saying humans must address climate change, pushing for intervention in foreign conflicts and voting to confirm President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees.
God in government
But those issues are not the most important ones, according to S.C. Republicans.
Instead, S.C. Republicans consistently have listed concerns about jobs and the economy, the rising national debt and politicians as their top priorities in Winthrop Polls since 2010.
But that has not stopped Graham and his challengers from appealing directly to GOP voters driven by social issues, betting those issues – from abortion to gay marriage – will drive social conservatives to the primary polls.
Graham’s backing of a 20-week abortion ban won him the endorsement of the National Right to Life political action committee and its S.C. affiliate. He also recently announced a coalition of “pro-family and pro-life” state leaders.
Other candidates are campaigning hard for the values voters as well.
Bowers, a pastor, has made his faith central to his campaign. Bright has sponsored several bills in the state Senate that aim to outlaw abortion. Orangeburg’s Connor has social conservatives on his list of endorsements too.
Cash, who has been arrested while protesting abortion clinics, said at a Thursday fundraiser in Prosperity that the United States “need the Lord’s help.”
Bob Dawkins, who hosted the event for Cash, said, “When you listen to (Cash talk about his platform of Christianity, capitalism and the Constitution) it just makes sense. I’m not happy with Washington, and I think we need some changes up there.”
Ted McGee, a West Columbia real estate agent and founding member of the S.C. Christian Chamber of Commerce, says he is voting for someone other than Graham for similar reasons.
McGee said he does not dislike Graham. But he thinks God has been pushed out of government, leading him to decide to back Bowers, the Columbia pastor.
“After awhile, there needs to be changes. I believe in term limits. I believe that we have people up there in the Congress that should not be there. They’ve been there too long and they have no new ideas. Unless you get people up there with new ideas, we’re never going to change this country.”
McGee, who knows Bowers personally, said Bowers will provide leadership on the “spiritual problem” that has led the state and country away from its Christian roots.
“When we have the tornadoes that hit out West, the floods that hit, they go on national TV (and say) ‘Let’s all pray.’ Who they gonna pray to? They take prayer out of public schools, then all of sudden say, ‘Let’s pray.’ Det Bowers understands that without the help of God, that we will never, ever bring our country back to the place it can be.”
Bucking their elders
Grace Kerley has seen first-hand the shifting tides of the Republican Party.
The 19-year-old president of the University of South Carolina College Republicans and the leader of Graham’s volunteer student coalition says more of her peers are breaking with their elders on social and foreign policy issues.
For example, some take more libertarian stances in favor of legalizing marijuana and same-sex marriage. Though they might think both morally are wrong, they see them as personal choices that should be left to states or individuals to decide.
Buchanan, The Citadel political science professor, said he sees that same perspective among the cadets at South Carolina’s military college.
They are “very libertarian when it comes to economic issues and social issues,” Buchanan said of The Citadel’s cadets. “Even though most – 99 percent – are absolutely opposed to gay marriage, they at the same time do not think it’s the job of government to say that’s off limits.”
That perspective is one GOP leaders may want to acknowledge, the political scientist added.
“Eventually, that younger cohort, the millennials, are going to make their voices heard. If the trend continues, they will be a force to be reckoned with and will, ultimately, change the party.”
While most mainstream Republicans also back a strong military, younger GOP voters also are finding room for debate on that issue, USC’s Kerley said, adding her Republican peers are “growing more isolationist.”
“America does have a role in global affairs,” Kerley said, adding while she struggles with defining that role, most people would label her an interventionist.
Eventually, however, she would support “reducing our influence (overseas) and calling on our friends to take on some of that responsibility.”
The country also should be cautious in over-spending on unnecessary military engagements, she said, adding, above all else, conservatives her age – facing graduation and the job market – worry most about the national debt and strength of the economy.
‘All over the world fighting’
But while some within the GOP favor a less robust U.S. foreign policy, others say they are drawn to Graham because they – like the incumbent – are strong backers of the military, oppose cuts to U.S. forces and frequently back U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts.
Gale Erekson, of Columbia, says that’s why she approves of Graham and will continue to support him.
Erekson was in the Army where she met her husband. Her father, a veteran of World War II, and the Korea and Vietnam wars, was one of the first African Americans to integrate the armed services, she said, adding, “We’re supporters of anybody who supports the military cause.”
But other conservatives see the military as bloated and military interventions as unnecessary.
“We can’t afford to be all over the world fighting fights for other countries,” said Kerry Brown, a partner in a West Columbia accounting firm who plans on voting for Connor, an Afghanistan war veteran. Brown says he trusts Connor in deciding when to take the nation into a foreign conflict.
“Lindsey Graham doesn’t seem to find a fight he doesn’t like,” Brown said. “We need to pull back in some.”
The nation’s economy and deficits worry Brown most, he said, adding withdrawing troops from overseas would lower the government’s costs and help reduce the nation’s deficits.
‘Not a career politician’
Graham has walked a tight-rope over the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program, which collects the cell phone data of U.S. citizens.
Graham has defended the program as a key to fighting terrorism. But his challengers have found sympathizers among South Carolinians – young and old – who say the program violates citizens’ right to due process under the Constitution.
Kerley, the USC college Republican president, said her peers are more “liberty-minded when it comes to our private information.”
Kerley says she was upset when she learned about the spying program. Later, however, she grew more accepting of it, once she “understood that they aren’t actually listening to my phone calls.”
Still, such programs should have close oversight, she said. “I don’t really have anything to hide, but I don’t want people going through my emails.”
But Frances Hoogenboom, a retired nurse in Lexington, sees Graham’s defense of the spying program as evidence that he has been in Washington too long – a narrative the senator’s challengers, all political newcomers except for Bright, have been trying to drive home on the campaign trail.
“(Mace) is not a career politician,” said Hoogenboom, who will cast her vote for the Charleston PR executive in June. “She believes in term limits. She doesn’t think that you should go to Washington and stay. I have witnessed this through the years: When they go there and stay, it becomes less and less about the people they represent and more about themselves.”
Education the path for minorities
Stephen Gilchrist, president of the S.C. African American Chamber of Commerce, says his conservative values trace back to being raised by his grandparents, who had third-grade educations and relied on food stamps to care for him and his brother.
“We realized very quickly that, because of meager resources in our family, we had to conserve quite a bit.”
The Republican Party’s ideas about business and expanding educational choices in private and public schools appeal to Gilchrist as ways to improve predominantly black communities, he said.
The husband of a Richland 2 school teacher, Gilchrist said he has cast votes for both Democrats and Republicans, and will continue to do so. In part, Gilchrist said, that is because he once worked for a longtime state Senate Democrat who taught him “to see politics in a way to get the job done.”
Gilchrist, a Graham supporter, said he encourages blacks to break their longtime allegiance with political parties, re-evaluating their values and potential.
The Republican Party, for example, lacks inclusiveness, he said. But the Democratic Party has been in charge of majority-minority districts for a long time and those communities still are struggling, he added.
Innovations in education and the economy are the key to a better future, he said, adding both parties could benefit from “thinking outside the box.”