The un-Cantor: Sen. Lindsey Graham wins by poking eye of tea party

Facing six tea party challengers, two-term Sen. Lindsey Graham is unapologetic about his differences with conservatives over issues such as immigration reform.

Rainier Ehrhardt/AP
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina speaks to supporters after winning the Republican primary on Tuesday in Columbia, S.C. Senator Graham defeated six tea party challengers.

Alongside House majority leader Eric Cantor’s stunning loss to college professor David Brat in central Virginia, Sen. Lindsey Graham’s decisive victory on Tuesday in the South Carolina Republican primary provides a curious bookend to a night when GOP establishment gains in recent primaries were upended en masse by a dark-horse tea party challenger.

Senator Graham’s South Carolina drawl is unmistakable: all Southern sweet inlaid with mirth and barbs. One minute he’s talking about reaching across the aisle to “solve problems,” the next about “bashing the head” of a Democratic challenger.

While Cantor may have lost because of what Politico called his “squishy” stance on immigration reform, Graham is an unapologetic supporter of a path to citizenship for America’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, in a state where the immigration-cautious tea party helped elect three members of Congress in 2012.

To be sure, Graham – who’s not afraid to tear into red-meat issues such as Benghazi and Bergdahl on Fox News – has said his popularity in one of the country’s most hard-right states is a direct rebuke to the GOP’s tea party wing and shows that voters, as he told a crowd recently, are “about the Republican Party moving forward, not backward.”

“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,” Molly Ball wrote Tuesday in the Atlantic. “For years, they have heckled him and called him names. But now he is having the last laugh.”

Graham’s victory can be read many ways: Six Graham challengers, many hailing a tea party flag, simply failed to gain traction, and the outside money that has helped long-shots in the past never quite appeared.

Yet political analysts credit Graham’s win largely to Graham himself. A veteran politician (he took office in 2003), Graham ran a careful ground game from the start – in contrast to Cantor, whose campaign was lulled into complacency by polls suggesting he’d win big. Graham raised money inside and outside the state – $13 million, to be precise, raising $4 for every $1 raised by his opponents – and continued to do what he genuinely seems to like doing: pressing flesh at farmers’ markets and small town festivals. “This is my life … and my job,” he told the State newspaper earlier this year. 

In contrast to six-term Sen. Thad Cochran (R) of Mississippi, who is now vulnerable against a tea party challenger in a June 24 runoff, Graham turned his bristly energy to an early ground game. Over a year ago, he set into motion a plan that included 5,000 precinct captains and six Palmetto State field offices.

But Graham is also a powerful Washington pol unafraid to play the parlor games that can make a difference. The two people who could have at least forced a runoff with Graham – Reps. Trey Gowdy and Mick Mulvaney – both stayed off the chess board in the 2014 cycle. Whether that was a favor to Graham, who helped secure them plum committee posts, well, nobody’s saying.

Challengers represented a vocal corner of the Republican base long frustrated with Graham’s moderate stance on issues ranging from immigration to the national debt ceiling. State Sen. Lee Bright finished a distant second, followed by Columbia pastor Det Bowers, businessman Richard Cash, attorneys Bill Connor and Benjamin Dunn, and PR executive Nancy Mace.

For establishment Republicans, who had almost managed to declare the insurgent tea party wing dead after maneuvering around multiple challenges this political season, Graham’s win on Tuesday night stood out as small piece of comfort against Brat’s out-of-right-field defeat of Cantor.

While the victory is certainly a testament to Graham’s political skills, it’s far from certain whether it suggests, as Graham said in a speech this week, that he has "tapped into" a “silent majority” of Republicans.

Whether it’s his message or his acumen that drove Tuesday's results, his victory could decide the plight of at least one major problem facing the country: illegal immigration. Cantor’s defeat, say some political analysts, probably takes any major reform off the table for the time being.

But Tuesday night, the White House saw in Graham’s victory a ray of hope. “Cantor’s problem wasn’t his position on immigration reform, it was his lack of a position,” tweeted White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer. “Graham wrote and passed a bill and is winning big.”

"What my opponents saw as my biggest fault, which was trying to solve a problem, South Carolina Republicans saw as my greatest asset," Graham said, as he celebrated his victory at the Hilton in Columbia.

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