How Lindsey Graham Beat the Tea Party

By turning himself into one of them
Lindsey Graham takes the stage after his Tuesday night primary victory.

National political writer Molly Ball’s recent piece in The Atlantic about U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s imminent victory in Tuesday’s Republican primary—headlined “How Lindsey Graham Stomped the Tea Party”—is one of the oddest pieces of political journalism I’ve read in quite a while.

It contains some truly strange, borderline fawning observations, such as this gem:

“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.” (I know French bulldogs. They’re adorable. You, Senator, are no French bulldog.)

But that’s not the half of it. Ball’s premise is what she calls “the GOP’s true grassroots groundswell—the revenge of the moderates.” She argues that Graham, through “a combination of clever politicking and pugnacious defiance,” has managed to beat back challenges by Tea Party insurgents by adopting a more conciliatory, reasonable attitude toward governance and proposing real solutions to problems rather than throwing rhetorical bombs at Washington:

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.”

Sorry. No sale. Lindsey Graham won in the primary because a) his opponents were nobodies and b) every time you turn on the television and switch over to Fox News Channel, there’s ol’ Lindsey, referring to White House staff as “scumbags” and insisting that Benghazi is the worst scandal in the history of the Republic and positing that “the world is literally about to blow up.” I’m not sure how any of this fits into Graham’s genuine efforts to appeal to moderates in his state—there are moderates in South Carolina?—and try to propose constructive solutions to real problems. It seems like standard-issue on-camera frothing at the mouth to me.

Especially after Eric Cantor’s defeat, there was an easy storyline to follow—why Cantor lost and Graham won—and Ball made sure to file on it, with a piece titled, “Why Eric Cantor Lost and Lindsey Graham Won.” Her assessment is that Graham’s campaign approach to immigration, widely seen as the issue that sank Cantor, was more consistent and sincere than Cantor’s.

OK. We can see the straws, and the befuddled national press grasping at them. It’s not that complicated. No less an authority than Democratic former S.C. Governor Jim Hodges knows the score (from The Washington Post’s The Fix blog):

“He started preparing for this fight several years ago, and made a concerted effort to maximize his resources and minimize his serious competition,” said Hodges. “He won the primary race when the books closed, because he didn’t have one opponent [but] a large number of underfunded candidates fighting for attention.”

Yes, that, and he made damn sure he was as bilious and loud as possible on the Republican base’s most froth-inducing issue, Benghazi, in as public a way as possible. That got the checks rolling in, and the votes followed, as they almost always do. Lindsey Graham “stomped the Tea Party” by absorbing its energy and out-nutting the nuts on the issue they care about most. He beat them by joining them.

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest