Lindsey Graham’s Tea Party Challenge Fades Away

The GOP "establishment" keeps beating back challenges.


With the possible exception of Mitch McConnell, the one incumbent Republican Senator who has been in the cross hairs of Tea Party conservatives since the start of the midterm election cycle, it has been South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham. The animosity toward Graham actually began when he was running for re-election the last time in 2006 and ended up being one of the primary supporters of immigration reform in the GOP, alongside Arizona’s John McCain. That particular “sin” earned him the nickname “Shamnesty” from the hard right, and it’s one that has stuck. Beyond immigration, Graham has also raised the hire of Tea Party supporters and hardcore conservatives with his support for a more aggressive, interventionist foreign policy and his opposition, along with other Republicans such as McCain and Kelly Ayotte, to the agenda that has been pushed in recent years by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul among others. Heading into the election season, Graham was seen by many as the Tea Party’s top target, and a number of strong conservatives ended up entering the race.

As has been the case in other states where Tea Party groups are challenging incumbent Republican Senators, though, the effort to oust Graham appears to be headed for failure:

Not long ago, Graham looked vulnerable to a primary challenge from conservatives offended by his bipartisan dealmaking and votes for President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominees. Tea party challenges ousted GOP incumbents in the past two elections, and, some believe, prevented the party from regaining the Senate.

But Graham’s power and shrewdness, not to mention the intimidating $7 million treasury, have positioned him to cruise to the nomination and likely re-election in November. He’s benefited from the support of establishment Republicans and allied groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce focused on gaining the six seats the GOP needs to retake the Senate.

Two top potential rivals let people know early on they were out.

State Sen. Tom Davis, an aide to former Gov. Mark Sanford, predicted before the Republican convention in 2012 that South Carolina voters would oust Graham. But Davis said he could do more for his libertarian-leaning causes in the state Senate, and that to run against Graham, he would need to raise a lot of money.

There was a movement to draft Mulvaney, but he demurred, saying he doesn’t enter races he can’t win.

With the two people who were seen as the top prospective challengers to Graham out of the way, the desire to oust Graham seemingly got out of control as more and more candidates entered the race. At this point, there are six candidates in the race and none of them has gotten to even ten percent in the polls. The most recent poll in the race was conducted in March by Gravis, and it shows Graham with 60% of the vote,  Another poll, conducted by Winthrop University, put Graham at 45%, with his closest opponent at 9%. That poll was conducted in February, though, and the two previous polls, which are largely consistent in their numbers, were conducted in October 2013 and August 2013 respectively. Given that, it’s possible that the race is closer today than the available polling shows, but Graham has not been resting on his laurels:

Whenever he isn’t in Washington, Graham is campaigning.

The money the senator has amassed for his race means he can run ads almost daily, host free barbecues and ice cream socials and organize the more than 5,000 precinct captains that he claims into a massive get-out-the-vote effort.

Graham’s campaign leaves little doubt that the lawmaker, who while in the U.S. House helped with President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, is still a conservative. One ad harshly criticizes President Barack Obama’s heath care law and promotes Graham’s bill to allow states to opt out of “Obamacare.” His campaign speech includes a promise to get to the bottom of the attack in Benghazi.

But Graham said what differentiates him from his opponents is that he wants to return to the Senate to improve the country, not just advance the Republican agenda.

“Some want to win this election just to get back power,” Graham said. “But the goal should be to win the election with a purpose.”

Graham will have to get at least 50% of the vote in the June 10th primary in order to avoid a runoff election. If the polling that we’ve seen so far is accurate, he seems well on the way toward doing that, and dashing the hopes of the conservative groups that have been targeting for the better part of the past six years.

I’ve noted before the extent to which the Tea Party doesn’t seem to be having as much success in primary races as it had in the past. One of the reasons for this has been the fact that the “establishment” wing of the GOP has done a much better job of fighting the Tea Party insurgency this year than it has in the past, and Graham is a good example of this phenomenon. Say what you will about him as a Senator, but Lindsey Graham has always proven himself to be very adept at navigating the political waters of the Palmetto State in much the same way that Mitch McConnell manages to navigate the political waters in Kentucky. Keeping his two biggest potential rivals out of the race, for example, has certainly helped his political fortunes, as has his $7,000,000 war chest. Arguably, it also likely helped Graham that another potential rival, Tim Scott, ended up being appointed to replace Jim DeMint. Scott had previously represented South Carolina’s First Congressional District, the same district now represented, again, by Mark Sanford. Were Scott still a Congressman, he likely would have been among the top potential candidates being recruited to run against Graham. Instead, Scott is running in his own Special Election to fill the remainder of DeMint’s term, which he will most likely win, and has not taken an active role in Graham’s primary. That’s more a matter of luck than skill on Graham’s part, but it’s yet another reason why the Tea Party stands to lose in South Carolina just like it has lost in Texas, and seems likely to lose in Kentucky.

There’s still a month left until the South Carolina Primary, but based on everything we’ve seen to date it seems as though Graham will end up doing just fine.

H/T: Jazz Shaw

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2014, Congress, Tea Party, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held 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 contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    The Tea Party has had lots of problems with its candidates. The power of incumbency is, obviously, one of them. Another is that it is apparently a mile wide and an inch deep.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    Graham in a pandering, spineless, slimy little man. The Tea Party’s membership strength is the ancient, the hate-fueled and the brain dead. So it’s really your classic battle of reptile vs. zombie. I understand the entire campaign is being option by Sony/Columbia. Michael Bay is attached.

  3. CSK says:

    Graham was breathtakingly lucky insofar as he appears to have been opposed by an unusually inept array of goofballs: Four-count ’em-four Tea Party candidates, all squabbling about who’s more Tea Party than thou; a minister whose claim to fame is that he insists that men commit adultery because their wives love their children too much; one person who said he didn’t even want to be in the race; and a seventh individual whose total platform consisted of an objection to Graham’s supposed sexual preference.

  4. @michael reynolds:

    Graham in a pandering, spineless, slimy little man.

    In other words, he’s a politician.

    Graham’s greatest achievement may be learning to maneuver the strange, bizarre world of South Carolina politics. It’s a beautiful state, but politics in the Palmetto State can be freaking weird.

  5. @Dave Schuler:

    I made note of this on Friday. Generally, they’ve had better luck latching on to established politicians who knew how to build coalitions than they have with committed ideologues

  6. anjin-san says:

    @ Doug Mataconis

    In other words, he’s a politician.

    Wow. So both sides do it.

    Who knew?

  7. Rick Almeida says:

    Graham has been flooding the airwaves with campaign ads for 3 months, all touting his opposition to Obamacare and BENGHAZI. Not surprising he’s able to fend off 4 or 5 nobodies splitting the craziest vote.

  8. Motopilot says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    In other words, he’s a politician.

    I just can’t imagine being a politician, attempting to serve/placate a diverse electorate. Tough job, especially considering how much of one’s personal life becomes a target. But there are good, honest, serious and competent elected officials. And then there are politicians like Lindsey Graham. This guy is a cheap man in an expensive suit.

  9. An Interested Party says:

    In other words, he’s a politician.

    And a lawyer…

  10. dazedandconfused says:

    Being unable to mount a credible challenge on a guy who has never met a land war in Asia he didn’t like says a lot about the Tea Party.

  11. gVOR08 says:

    If his primary challenge is defeated, will he stop pandering to the Tea Party about Obamacare and Benghaaazzziii!!! (TM) on TV what seems like every twenty minutes?

    As Dom DeLuise said in Blazing Saddles, sounds like steam escaping.

  12. Matt Bernius says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    The Tea Party has had lots of problems with its candidates. The power of incumbency is, obviously, one of them. Another is that it is apparently a mile wide and an inch deep.

    Sadly David, I suspect that you overestimate the current Tea Party’s depth.

  13. Matt Bernius says:

    Good article Doug. Just wanted to build on one of your points:

    Generally, [the tea party would] had better luck latching on to established politicians who knew how to build coalitions than they have with committed ideologues

    This is entirely correct and completely impossible under the current configuration of the Tea Party. Because the Tea Party was founded as populist opposition movement its values have fundamentally been negatively defined against the current state of politics in the US as they see it.

    Hense their very nature makes it impossible to create lasting coalitions as the organization is based on purity. Coalitions inherently require compromise to work. And as we know, compromise is, according to the Tea Party, what got us into the current mess.

  14. Robin Cohen says:

    Time for Lindsey to fade away.