U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s opponents say their movement is growing. South Carolina Republicans are tired of Graham because he is not conservative enough, they insist. But the division within the GOP, as tea party and libertarian activists try to oust Graham, may be more a sign of the majority party’s entrenchment than of a major political shift, observers say.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham did not say his opponents’ names at a campaign stop Wednesday in Columbia. But he did try to distinguish himself from the five GOP challengers who pose the greatest threat ever to his political career.
“I am really proud to be a Ronald Reagan, Carroll Campbell, Strom Thurmond Republican. Someone who understands that conservatism is the way to govern. But you have to govern,” Graham said to applause.
“The decisions I make will be what I think will be best for all of us. ... I will listen to anybody, but I’m not going to be told what to do in this job by people who want it their way exclusively.”
The Seneca Republican, known as a Washington dealmaker willing to work across the political aisle, aligned himself with three leaders who helped transform the South Carolina GOP from a powerless minority to the conservative powerhouse it is today.
Invoking another trio, Graham’s opponents say tea party heroes U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah, and Rand Paul of Kentucky are the future of the party, fighting to regain control of the GOP from wishy-washy, center-leaning Republicans.
Five Republicans have filed to run against Graham in June’s GOP primary: Columbia pastor Det Bowers; state Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg; Easley businessman Richard Cash; Orangeburg attorney Bill Connor; and Charleston public relations executive Nancy Mace.
To stand even a long-shot chance of winning, Graham’s GOP primary opponents will need – and hope for – the help of national political groups, such as the anti-Graham Senate Conservatives Fund. Founded by South Carolina’s former junior U.S. senator, Jim DeMint of Greenville, and run by DeMint’s former chief of staff, the Conservatives Fund played a big role in electing Cruz, Lee and Paul.
Observers, not part of the challengers’ camps, question whether the anti-Graham sentiment is broad enough to unseat the two-term incumbent.
Graham questions his opponents’ support as well.
Graham said half of his challengers are libertarians, who campaigned for U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, when he ran for president, and do not represent the mainstream that South Carolina conservatives want.
Favored in the polls, aided by $7.6 million to spend and boasting powerful national political allies, Graham is selling his two-term Senate record against what he sees as a movement that has not proven it can lead.
“The tea party movement was born out of frustration,” he said. “But, for any movement to survive, you’ve got to prove to the country that you can take care of the country.
“And Republicans,” he added, “have to prove that they can govern.”
The South Carolina Democratic Party endured the same division before the GOP took root.
S.C. Democratic Gov. Strom Thurmond signaled the start of the shift to the GOP, when he ran for president as a “Dixiecrat” states’ rights segregationist in 1948. Thurmond’s eventual conversion to the Republican Party in 1964 was one of the key turning points in the rise of the South Carolina GOP.
Cracking the ranks
U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Arizona, predicted the GOP’s eventual dominance in South Carolina in a letter he wrote to Columbia businessman Charles Boineau, who, in 1961, became the first Republican since 1900 to win election to the S.C. House of Representatives.
“You will go down in history as the first (R)epublican to crack the solid ranks of (D)emocrats in South Carolina,” Goldwater wrote, according to an article in the S.C. Political Collections in the University of South Carolina Libraries. “(A)nd some day, whether you know it or not, your victory will mark the turning point in not only the political but the economic direction of your state.”
Boineau’s win — aided by Columbia’s Drake Edens, an early party organizer considered by some the father of the state GOP — was a turning point for the party, said Neal Thigpen, a retired Francis Marion University political scientist. It signaled the start of the state’s two-party system.
But the party struggled to gain footing, until 1964, when then-Sen. Thurmond, a Democrat, changed parties.
“(Thurmond) gets on South-wide television and says he’s switching to the Goldwater Republican Party, and I remember that ‘D’ in the box, it switches, and an ‘R’ came up,” said Thigpen, who was watching on television.
Thurmond’s shift gave “instant credibility and stature” to the Republican Party, paving the way for other white conservative Democrats to switch parties, said longtime GOP strategist Warren Tompkins.
‘Nobody would show up’
The transition did not happen overnight.
The party gained more ground in 1974, when Jim Edwards became the first Republican South Carolina elected governor since Reconstruction. But that victory, said Citadel political scientist Scott Buchanan, had a lot of help from Democrats “because there was controversy over the Democratic nominee.”
In their primary runoff, the Democrats nominated Charles “Pug” Ravenel, whose grassroots campaigning earned him a broad populist appeal. However, Ravenel was booted off the ballot after a lawsuit challenged his residency, and Edwards won the general election, a victory made possible, in part, by disaffected Democrats.
The party builder
Edwards served four years in the governor’s mansion, followed by Democratic Gov. Richard Riley, who served for eight years.
Then, in 1986, Carroll Campbell was elected governor – “the real father of the modern Republican Party in South Carolina,” the Citadel’s Buchanan says. Campbell traveled the state participating in local party-building activities, including recruiting Democrats, who still controlled the state’s General Assembly.
Warren Tompkins, Campbell’s chief of staff for five years, said Campbell would pledge to campaign and fund-raise for party newcomers.
The strategy was part of a larger campaign to realign Southern white conservatives with the GOP that initially was more successful in federal races than state contests.
The success of that effort started to show when S.C. conservatives started calling themselves Republicans, said Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon. “Instead of ‘I voted for Reagan, but I’m a Democrat,’ they started saying, ‘I’m a Republican.’ “
Following four years of Democrat Jim Hodges as governor another important GOP moment came in 2010, when Republican Mark Sanford won the governor’s office, said Tompkins, the GOP consultant.
Sanford “ran on the principle that Columbia was broken and needed to be fixed. But the problem is, he was head of the party that he said was the problem,” Tompkins said. “We were arguing against ourselves. ... It frustrated a lot of people. It’s never ‘my way or the highway.’ You’re not going to get anything done.”
As early as the Goldwater days, there were radical elements – like the modern-day tea partiers and libertarians – within the GOP.
They were less prominent than the more recent movements, Thigpen said. “Republicans stuck together as we were building,” he said. “All of a sudden, when you get to majority status, that’s when the divisions begin to show up.”
The first significant infighting was led by conservative Christians, encouraged by televangelist Pat Robertson’s failed bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 1988, Thigpen said.
“A lot of the establishment Republicans in this state, they were frightened of them,” Thigpen said. “A lot of them began saying, ‘Oh, come on in. We feel like you do about (opposing) abortion’” and on other social issues.
Former Gov. Beasley said the current infighting – between mainstream Republicans and the tea party libertarians – reflects a definitive turn toward more “vitriolic and visceral” attacks.
“It’s very frustrating to see those who claim to be of the Christian faith not loving their enemy and not following the Golden Rule,” said Beasley, who has traveled the world since leaving office to assist with reconciliation efforts. “Where did Jesus say love your enemy, except the Democrats?”
Gauging the tea party
The tea party has gained ground within the S.C. GOP as activists fill the leadership ranks of county Republican parties. Evidence of their influence can be seen in the multiple censures that county parties have issued against fellow Republican Graham, the state’s senior senator, political observers say.
However, poll numbers show that a only minority of S.C. voters, even among Republicans, approve of the tea party – 26 percent of South Carolinians and 46 percent of S.C. Republicans, according to an October Winthrop Poll. In that same poll, only 6 percent of South Carolinians said they considered themselves Tea Party members.
Just as the S.C. GOP took decades to take root, it will take time to say whether the influence of the Tea Party, less than a decade in the making, led to a sea change in the state party, said Scott Huffmon, director of the Winthrop Poll. While the tea party helped elect sympathetic U.S. House candidates in 2010, those candidates do not necessarily reflect tea party sentiments on every vote, he said.
An example is the most recent vote on the federal budget, which included money to deepen Charleston harbor, vital to expanding the state’s economy, supporters say. All but two of the state’s congressional representatives — U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and Sanford, who won the 1st District congressional seat again in 2013 — voted to support the budget.
“If you look at their rhetoric, it sounds like they’re speaking at tea party meetings most of the time,” Huffmon said of the state’s conservative congressional members. “But if you look at their behavior, they look more like a mainstream conservative rather than tea party.”
‘Get the best possible deal’
Grahamvoted for the budget. It limited the growth of the government, he said.
“You can always find something in a big bill like that to vote against,” Graham said. “But, eventually, you’ve got to have a budget. You’ve got to fund the government or ports do die. ... I’m in the camp of ‘Get the best deal possible, and what you can’t get today, you go after tomorrow.’ “
Graham said the GOP’s next turning point lies in a different direction than the Tea Party libertarians and their refusal to compromise.
It lies, he says, in building a Republican Party that appeals to Hispanics on pro-life and immigration issues, one “that can remind young people, we’re not listening into your phone calls, we’re trying to protect the nation against a future attack by people who would kill us all if they could,” and in building a party that can tell African-Americans that the schools in their community “are not what they should be.”
“That’s the turning point in the party: How can you take conservatism and sell it to a changing America?”