U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said this week's primary results bode well for his crowded primary challenge on June 10.
A main theme from Tuesday's GOP primaries, particularly the Senate races in Georgia and Kentucky, was that the Republican establishment candidates have learned how to beat tea party challengers.
Graham faces six Republican challengers, all of whom have argued that he has not been conservative enough, while Graham has argued that he has been effective because he is willing to work with his political opponents.
Asked about Tuesday's results, where more establishment GOP candidates defeated tea party challengers, Graham said they show that Republicans are looking for candidates who can win in the general election and can govern, if elected.
"The Republican party has a real opportunity in 2014 and 2016, so we're looking for candidates who can not only win but help solve the problems the nation faces," he said. "I think those two concepts help me at home - being a winner and a problem-solver."
One of Graham's challengers, Easley businessman Richard Cash, said he shares the concerns of the tea party, such as fiscal discipline and adherence to the constitution, but considers himself more a "God and Country" candidate than a tea party candidate.
Cash said he doesn't think Tuesday's elections bears much on South Carolina's Senate primary race.
"In Kentucky, you had one main challenger to (incumbent Sen. Minority Leader Mitch) McConnell, and here we've got a group of challengers who are all peeling away votes from Senator Graham's base," Cash said.
Tuesday's result continued a trend where tea party challengers have had less recent success. Earlier this month, some observers said the tea party's defeat in the North Carolina Republican primary also could mean Graham has less to worry about.
But North Carolina's runoff rules say the first-place finisher can claim the nomination by collecting just 40 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate field, while South Carolina requires all primary candidates to get more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a June 24 runoff.
"The likelihood is Senator Graham is going to have a difficult time getting to 50 percent on the first vote," Cash said.
It's hard to gauge the tea party's reach because it isn't a single organization or movement, and some of its members don't refer to themselves as "tea party" members but as part of other conservative-aligned groups such as the 9/12 Project, a constitutionalist organization backed by author and radio host Glenn Beck.
While polls show only about 6 percent of South Carolina voters consider themselves members of the tea party movement, that still translates into about 150,000 voters. A Winthrop poll of Republicans in February found that 24 percent of GOP voters view the tea party as "very positive," while another 32 percent view it as "somewhat positive."
Some of Graham's challengers have made tea party appeals in their bid to unseat Graham, a 12-year incumbent. They have criticized him for being weak on immigration, not fiscally conservative enough and too eager to cooperate with Democrats.
The field also includes minister Det Bowers, Spartanburg state Sen. Lee Bright, Orangeburg attorney Bill Connor, Columbia lawyer Benjamin Dunn, and Charleston businesswoman Nancy Mace.
The winner will face the winner of the June 10 Democratic primary between Orangeburg state Sen. Brad Hutto and Columbia businessman Jay Stamper.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.