North Carolina tea party loss could boost Lindsey Graham win in South Carolina

Thom Tillis waves to supporters as he celebrates with his wife Susan, left, son Ryan Tillis, and daughter Lindsay, second from right, at a election night rally in Charlotte Tuesday. Tillis, the Republican establishment's favored son in North Carolina, won the state's Senate nomination by running as a conservative.

The tea party's defeat in the North Carolina Republican primary this week could mean U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham doesn't have to worry as much about his chances in June.

North Carolina's Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis - seen as the "establishment" favorite - on Tuesday won that state's GOP Senate primary outright, avoiding what could have been a costly runoff against a tea party favorite or any of the six other candidates on the ballot.

"Their numbers didn't match the strength of their voices," Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said of the unsuccessful tea party turnout in the Tar Heel State.

"Graham is hoping that remains the same in South Carolina," he added.

In North Carolina, Tillis' main competition included tea party favorite Greg Brannon and the Rev. Mark Harris.

One reason Tillis did so well, Huffmon said, is that he was considered the Republicans' best threat to challenge Democrat U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan in the fall.

College of Charleston political scientist Jordan Ragusa agreed North Carolina's results bode well for Graham in measuring how influential the tea party is against rank-and-file Republican primary voters.

"Graham's biggest challenge was winning the primary," he said. "And while he always had a good chance of that, it got even better yesterday."

But Huffmon said Graham is not completely out of the woods. North Carolina's runoff rules say the first-place finisher can claim the nomination by collecting just 40 percent of the vote there when it's a multi-candidate field.

That differs from South Carolina's election rules where the first-place finisher has to get above 50 percent to avoid a runoff.

An upside for Graham's six GOP primary opponents, he added, is they have a chance "to learn from the mistakes" made to the north, particularly when it came to what he said appeared to be ill-targeted campaign spending in a state with seven media markets.

"This is absolutely not the time for Graham to be complacent," he added.

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Just how powerful South Carolina's tea party movement is, and whether it can sway any statewide election, has long been a subject of debate. For starters, the group isn't an organized movement, with affiliates set up statewide, sometimes based on county, town or geographic affiliations.

In some instances, their members don't refer to themselves as "tea party" members anymore, becoming part of other conservative-aligned groups such as the 9/12 Project, a constitutionalist organization backed by author and radio host Glenn Beck.

A Winthrop poll of state voters in April found that fully 90 percent of the state's voters do not consider themselves members of the tea party movement, while about 6 percent did.

"Before you consider the tea party membership numbers small, please consider that 5.6 percent of registered voters translates to 158,223 people who consider themselves 'members' of the tea party," he said of the poll's findings. "That is not an insignificant number."

Some of Graham's challengers have made open appeals to tea party-aligned voters in what many see as their long shot attempts to unseat Graham, a 12-year incumbent. Some contend Graham is weak on immigration and too eager to cooperate with Democrats. The field includes minister Det Bowers, Spartanburg state Sen. Lee Bright, Upstate businessman Richard Cash, Orangeburg attorney Bill Connor, newcomer Benjamin Dunn, and businesswoman Nancy Mace. All the hopefuls trail Graham significantly in the money race. He had an estimated $7 million available, according to the most recent campaign finance filings.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.