How Lindsey Graham Stomped the Tea Party

One of the Senate's most liberal Republicans is rolling to victory in one of the reddest states. Are other Republicans watching how he did it?
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Associated Press

GREENVILLE, S.C.—Kicking the crap out of the Tea Party is the most fun Senator Lindsey Graham has ever had.

"More fun than any time I've been in politics," Graham tells me at the YMCA here, where he's about to address a couple dozen supporters. Little kids are streaming through the halls to their gym classes, and a smell of sweat hangs in the air. "Because people are being uplifting," Graham continues. "People are really saying, 'OK, enough already.' They're starting to push back from trying to define conservatism in a fashion where there is no room for solving problems."

Ever since the rise of the Tea Party, Graham—a politician who seems to delight in sticking his finger in the eye of the Republican base—has been on the front lines of the struggle for the soul of the GOP. For years, right-wingers have heckled him and called him names. But now he is having the last laugh. Facing six no-name opponents in Tuesday's primary, Graham needs 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff, and he is confident he will get it.

"This has turned into a referendum not just on me, but on you, right?" Graham tells his supporters. Winning the primary outright, he says, "will not only get me back to the Senate. It will legitimize everything I've tried to do for you. It will be a statement heard all over the country—a statement about the Republican Party moving forward, not backward."

On paper, Graham is the right wing's juiciest target. An unapologetic champion of bipartisanship and compromise, he has worked with Democrats on initiatives such as immigration reform and climate legislation. Conservative blogs and talk radio have nicknamed him "Flimsy Lindsey" and "Grahamnesty." Even as South Carolina has turned into a right-wing hotbed—with a Tea Party-aligned governor and legislature and perhaps the country's most right-wing congressional delegation—Graham has refused to follow his party's rightward drift. He has been censured by nine separate South Carolina county GOP organizations and heckled at his state party convention. For years, a local activist has driven around with a Graham effigy stuffed headfirst into a toilet, leading a brigade of self-styled "RINO hunters." In 2012, the president of the Club for Growth said Graham would be the fiscally conservative group's top target this year.

To say that threat has failed to materialize would be an understatement. The Club and other national conservative groups have quietly abandoned the race as Graham's challengers failed to get traction. As I followed Graham on the last day of his primary campaign, a whirlwind five-city tour, it became clear that this was a man not content merely to eke out victory against a rival faction of the party. He wanted to humiliate them, and in so doing, to deliver a public rebuke to those who might have thought they could make him an example. 

"I'm trying to tell the Tea Party, I understand your frustration, but being frustrated is not enough," he tells me. Republicans are only doing well at the moment, he believes, because Democrats have overreached. The public is turning against the president and his party because of Obamacare and what Graham sees as an over-the-top liberal agenda. But Republicans will not keep voters' loyalty unless they begin to offer a positive alternative. "I know Washington is broken, but what's broken about it is everybody yelling and nobody trying to fix it," he says. "I'm trying."

Graham is small, wiry, and energetic, with bulging blue eyes in a round, ruddy face topped with bristly, spit-combed hair. His bared-teeth grin and frenetic manner give him the affect of a high-spirited French bulldog. Graham was raised in the small upstate town of Central, where his family lived above their pool hall and liquor store. When he was in college, his parents both died unexpectedly a year apart, leaving him to help raise his sister, nine years his junior. He eventually became her legal guardian, and she remains his closest friend and confidant. She also appears in television ads testifying to his character. "I never had any doubt that Lindsey would take care of me," Darline Graham Nordone tells me. Her name is spelled "Darlene" on her birth certificate, but when she was learning to spell, "Lindsey taught me to spell my name D-A-R-L-I-N-E," so that's still how she spells it.

In its final days, Graham's primary campaign has attracted little media interest, which makes sense for a one-sided contest that appears to be a foregone conclusion. Yet it may be the most significant race of the 2014 Republican primaries. If the story of this year's primaries has been the resurgence of the Republican establishment and the diminished might of the Tea Party, the best illustration of it is Graham escaping unscathed.

Just as important as the escape is way he has done it—a combination of clever politicking and pugnacious defiance. Unlike Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran, a 36-year veteran who was forced into a runoff with a conservative challenger last week, Graham left nothing to chance. ("I'm at a different stage of my life than he is," Graham said when I asked him about Cochran, adding, "I've been planning for a hard contest for two years.") He raised $13 million and seeded a formidable campaign operation, with more than 5,000 precinct captains and six field offices around the state. Through a combination of intimidation and enticement—as when he helped a conservative congressman, Mick Mulvaney, get a seat on the House Financial Services Committee—he kept the most prominent potential opponents out of the race. His six challengers include a state senator and five candidates seeking their first elected office; combined, they have raised about $2 million.

Graham has also refused to change his ideological stripes. Though his opponents blast him as an election-year conservative, he has been remarkably consistent, saying he believes voters will reward sincerity above opportunism. On the stump, he frequently holds forth about how the Republican Party needs to change to attract new voters. He is more likely to mention his crusades conservatives hate, such as immigration reform and his votes for President Obama's Supreme Court nominees, than those they admire, like his harsh criticism of the administration's actions in Benghazi and in the recent prisoner exchange for Bowe Bergdahl. When I asked him about a recent remark that the Bergdahl deal could lead to calls for Obama's impeachment, he rushed to clarify that he didn't believe impeachment was merited and that while the swap was "a dumb and dangerous decision," the administration was probably within its rights not to notify Congress.

There is, to be sure, some recalibration: Graham's campaign literature highlights his past criticism of Obamacare and his support for a doomed piece of legislation that would allow states to "opt out" of the law. But when I ask him what he would do about Obamacare now, he frankly admits that it can't be repealed without a Republican president, and proposes working with Democrats on "reforms" that would "lessen the burden on business" while keeping such features as the ban on preexisting-condition discrimination and allowing young adults to stay on their parents' insurance. Nor has Graham only recently moved to the middle. Back in 1998, as a second-term congressman, he was the only Republican on the House judiciary committee to vote against any of the Clinton impeachment articles, memorably posing the question, "Is this Watergate or Peyton Place?"

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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