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Lindsey Graham Coasts To Easy Victory

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While everyone was trying to process the political earthquake in Central Virginia, another long time Washington politician who had an even bigger Tea Party target on his back was winning easily:

No, thanks, S.C. Republicans said Tuesday, deciding they will stick with Lindsey Graham despite loud criticisms from a vocal minority.

That message echoed in Tuesday’s GOP primary, as voters pushed Graham past half the vote, keeping him out of a June 24 runoff against the largest field of opponents he ever has faced.

Graham’s six GOP challengers predicted the primary would be a referendum on the two-term incumbent’s record. Instead, Republican voters bucked Tea Party dissenters and gave Graham roughly 60 percent of the vote, lending credence to criticism the “anybody-but-Graham” movement is driven by a vocal but small minority.

“What my opponents saw as my biggest fault, which was trying to solve a problem, South Carolina Republicans saw as my greatest asset,” Graham said celebrating Tuesday’s win at the Hilton in Columbia, promising to continue working across the aisle.

Recalling how he and his sister relied on Social Security survivors’ benefits after their parents died, he said, “To my Democratic friends, Social Security is worth saving. If you need a partner, Lindsey Graham is here.”

After his 20-minute speech, Graham grew emotional, thanking his family and South Carolinians as his eyes welled up. “I will not let you down.”

Despite his decisive win, Graham’s campaign and his allies did not take his challengers for granted.

Leaving a May campaign barbecue at the Riverbanks Zoo, Graham told The State that he was leading his GOP challengers – at least on that day – by his campaign’s count.

But incumbents face “headwinds,” he said. “If it doesn’t come together on June 10, it’s all talk.”

Graham’s worries were all for naught.

Finishing a distant second was state Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, in the teens. Others running were: Columbia pastor Det Bowers, Easley businessman Richard Cash, Orangeburg attorney Bill Connor, Columbia attorney Benjamin Dunn, and Charleston PR executive Nancy Mace.

Graham’s win deals a blow to the state’s Tea Party activists who hoped their anti-tax, limited-government message – and disdain for the Seneca Republican’s willingness to work across the political aisle – had grown in power since the 2010 elections, which saw three Tea Party-backed congressmen elected from South Carolina.

As we’ve discussed here before, Graham’s victory can be attributed to a combination of good political fortune and good campaigning:

Graham’s win Tuesday came after considerable preparation.

A year before Tuesday’s contest, Graham’s political machine began to take shape with the formation of a statewide grassroots network and coalitions of supporters representing different industries and interests.

Graham’s financial arsenal kept growing, too. The two-term incumbent raised more than $11.6 million for his re-election bid, out-fundraising his GOP challengers by four dollars for every one dollar they raised combined.

Graham’s re-election effort also was helped when GOP contenders who could have gained statewide support – including U.S. Reps. Mick Mulvaney, R-Indian Land, and Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg – stayed out of the fray.

Political groups allied with Graham also ran favorable ads, operated phone banks to get out the vote, and sat in wait in case outside groups decided to back one of the senator’s opponents.

The pro-Graham West Main Street Values political action committee raised $750,000 to defend Graham, said former S.C. GOP chairman Katon Dawson, adding the group had more donors on standby if anti-Graham dollars starting flowing into the state.

Dawson, who launched the pro-Graham committee, said he wanted to put third-party groups on notice that they would not come into South Carolina without a fight.

Asked about the leader of the Senate Conservatives Fund, a potent political group that targeted Graham in late 2013 and backed Tea-Party candidates in other states, Dawson said: “I was prepared to get in a fist-fight with him.”

As I’ve noted before, Graham won in no small part because of the luck that no serious candidates stepped into the race to challenge him, leaving him instead with a large divided field of challengers who were basically saying the same thing and competing for the same voters and the fact that he spent the last year or more traveling the state and connecting with voters, something that Eric Cantor apparently failed to do.

Were it not for Eric Cantor’s defeat, I’d be prepared to say that Graham winning was a significant set back for the Tea Party, which has already suffered several defeats this year at the hands of the establishment. That win in Virginia, however, completely upsets the apple cart of that argument and is likely to energize activists in races in Mississippi, Tennessee, Kansas, and elsewhere. Whether they’ll succeed in their own endeavors or not is an open question, of course, but it’s likely to drag the GOP further to the right on issues like immigration at least in the short term.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. gVOR08 says:

    Does this mean he’ll stop pandering to the base on TV what seems like every twenty minutes? Maybe he’ll even lose interest in Benghaaazzzii!! (TM)?

    One thing I’m sure he won’t do – support immigration reform after Cantor’s loss.

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  2. Tillman says:

    He had a similar situation to Thom Tillis down here a month ago.

    The primary Cantor lost – was Brat the only other candidate running? I’m starting to sense a pattern.

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  3. PAUL HOOSON says:

    Personality is part of it. There are a lot more positives with Lindsey Graham than there was with Eric Cantor. Cantor embraced a few extreme positions as well, while Graham has always been a more reasonable type of conservative. Sometimes Graham acts like a statesman, who is above mere partisan politics, which is another worthy trait of his. I think his military connection helps as well, including his role as a JAG for the Air Force. – Part of my family lives in Charleston, where Graham has a good overall reputation for a number of good reasons.

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  4. gVOR08 says:

    After the primary Ramesh Ponnuru did a post at Bloomberg View titled What Does Cantor’s Defeat Mean? Nobody Knows in which he said a) it obviously isn’t immigration because Graham won, and b) I have no idea but I have a column to fill. Boo Man did a simple answers to stupid questions response. Graham ran state wide, which dilutes the crazy. Cantor ran in one district, which is largely Virginiatucky. He lost because of immigration.

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