If U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham wins the Republican nomination Tuesday, as polls suggest he might, the tea party will suffer an undeniable blow, one brought on by its lack of organization and by the senior senator's aggressive moves to outflank it.
Little outside spending in S.C.
One way tea party and similar conservative-minded groups can pose problems for GOP incumbents is by outside spending - contributions and spending not coordinated by any candidate's campaign.
But there's been little of that here against Sen. Lindsey Graham or Tim Scott.
State Outside spending against GOP Senate candidates
North Carolina $5.6 million
Mississippi $4.7 million
Massachusetts $3.6 million
Arkansas $2.9 million
Michigan $2.7 million
Louisiana $2.5 million
Colorado $2.2 million
Alaska $1.8 million
Georgia $1.7 million
Kentucky $1.4 million
Nebraska $1.4 million
Texas $1.1 million
New Hampshire $744,980
South Carolina $6,164
South Carolina's grassroots conservatives have long had Graham in their cross hairs, citing his tendency to compromise with Democrats, his support for President Barack Obama's judicial nominees and other decisions as proof he wasn't conservative enough for their tastes.
But Graham recognized the threat early on, confronted it and has largely outmaneuvered his would-be opponents while reminding South Carolina GOP voters that, by most measures, he is very much a conservative.
Unlike in Mississippi, where six-term incumbent GOP Sen. Thad Cochran faced a single tea party challenger and now finds himself in a difficult runoff, Graham has six opponents Tuesday in the Republican primary.
They include Spartanburg state Sen. Lee Bright; Upstate businessman Richard Cash; Charleston businesswoman Nancy Mace; Columbia minister Det Bowers; Orangeburg attorney Bill Connor; and Columbia lawyer Benjamin Dunn.
None of them has broken out of the pack in terms of polls or fundraising. Last week's latest poll showed Graham at 49 percent.
If just a small fraction of the poll's undecideds (35 percent) break his way, Graham won't face a runoff June 24.
The Greenville Tea Party held a meeting Thursday to discuss ways to beat Graham. The meeting featured Kurt Potter, a co-founder of the Center for Self Governance, but none of Graham's six primary opponents.
Greenville Tea Party President Bill Rhodes was not optimistic about the chances for success.
"The main problem is Lindsey has those millions, the last I heard over $7 million," he said, referring to Graham's campaign war chest. "It seems like every 30 minutes to an hour, you see his ads on TV.
If they (Graham's challengers) had the same amount of money he did, they probably could win, too."
The Charleston Tea Party has been largely dormant for a few years, though other conservative groups here hope Graham's challengers can keep him below 50 percent Tuesday, then quickly coalesce behind a runoff challenger.
"I think the crowded field might help because we know the turnout in the primaries is so small," said John Hull of the 9-12 Project in Summerville.
But Hull said he looks at the race differently from intellectual and emotional points of view. "Obviously," he said, "Lindsey Graham has all the advantages in the world as the incumbent."
Last month, Politico featured a story on how Graham had outmaneuvered his tea party opponents.
It outlined how he didn't take re-election for granted, raising large sums and establishing a statewide network early on. In 2010, former U.S. Sen Dick Lugar said this after his primary loss: "Perhaps I was not as concerned as I should have been about the challenge in my primary."
Graham has not made that error. He also has not shied away from his detractors. Graham appeared before a Charleston Tea Party gathering in September 2010, a tense meeting where Graham and his aides unsuccessfully tried to limit access by reporters. But he listened to criticisms and defended his conservative approach. When one man said he was a Vietnam veteran "unlike (Secretary of State) John Kerry," Graham stopped him, saying, "John Kerry and I disagree, but he was in Vietnam, and you know what? President Obama is not a Muslim. He's a liberal."
Graham also has befriended fellow South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, a tea party favorite who has stayed neutral in Graham's race. Even former Sen. Jim DeMint, whose Senate Conservatives Fund has played a key role in helping other tea party candidates win, has not spoken against Graham. The fund has not endorsed any of Graham's opponents. The Senate Conservatives Fund "will not endorse Lindsey Graham because we have a policy against endorsing incumbents," its website says. In Mississippi, Cochran's challenger Chris McDaniel was aided not only by the Senate Conservatives Fund but also by millions of dollars in spending from independent conservative groups.
Those same independent conservative groups have spent less than $10,000 to topple Graham, according to the most recent figures from OpenSecrets.org.
The conservative Club for Growth spent about $2.5 million promoting McDaniel and attacking Cochran, who had a 56 percent annual score from the group and a 67 percent lifetime score.
Graham's conservative "score" was even higher at 65 percent last year, 75 percent over his entire career. The Club for Growth has not spent any money in this Senate race, at least not so far. Asked about its strategy toward Graham, all a group spokesman would say was, "We're watching the race in South Carolina."
Mount Pleasant Town Councilman Chris Nickels, who said he loved the tea party's early incarnation but no longer considers himself a member, said Graham likely won the primary when none of the state's Republican congressmen, such as rising stars Trey Gowdy or Mick Mulvaney, decided to challenge him.
Such a candidate could have unified the grassroots opponents of Graham, attracted more donations, and fought a better fight.
"I won't vote for him (Graham) next week," Nickels said, "but he's going to win, and I will vote for him in the fall."
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
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