This year marks the first time Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has had to run for office since the emergence of the Tea Party. Graham has never faced much Republican opposition during his two decades in Congress, but this June, he's already heading into a primary with four Republican challengers who say he's not conservative enough for the Palmetto State. Voters say the race has become a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party in South Carolina.
For many Republicans, Graham's race for re-election comes down to one question: Is he a true South Carolina conservative? When you ask Graham that question, he immediately compares himself to Ronald Reagan.
"I think I represent the traditional way of being a conservative," Graham said during a recent interview in Columbia, the state capital. "You know, Ronald Reagan was a pretty conservative guy. Tip O'Neill was a pretty liberal guy. They were able to find common ground to save Social Security from bankruptcy for about 40 years. Somebody's got to take it to the next level. I'd like to be in that mix."
Graham says being a conservative doesn't mean you can't work with the other side to get things done. And he notes that Democrats need Republicans to do the big things. That's why he says he helped broker a bipartisan immigration deal last June that offered illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
But at a Tea Party Convention in Myrtle Beach, S.C., this past weekend, there were hordes of people who said a true conservative doesn't make deals like that.
"He is the Democrats' favorite Republican, which should tell you something about him," said Keith Tripp of the Laurens County Tea Party Patriots.
"He starts talking the conservative talk, but he doesn't walk the conservative walk," Carol Williamson of the Myrtle Beach Tea Party said.
Pat Dansbury of Ridgeland offered this analogy: "He's like the cow that gives you a can of milk and then kicks it back over again. He does really good things and he does really horrific things."
Horrific things, they say, beyond that immigration deal, like when he criticized his Republican colleagues when they refused to fund the government unless Congress defunded Obamacare. And when he voted for the big bank bailout.
Another convention goer, Steve Hoffman, said he can't get over how Graham voted to confirm Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.
"How could a conservative vote for two progressive, Socialist-type Supreme Court nominees? Unheard of," he said.
Tea Partiers are hoping to force Graham into a runoff in June. In South Carolina, a candidate needs a majority of votes to win the primary, so the goal is to finish second and go head-to-head with Graham two weeks later.
Leading the pack of four Republican challengers is Lee Bright, a state senator who's pushed legislation to ban abortion funding for victims of rape and incest. He also wants to make enforcement of the Affordable Care Act punishable by one year in jail.
"I would put my conservative record against any legislator in the country. I don't think there's anybody more conservative than I am," Bright says.
And then there's Nancy Mace, who is best known as the first woman to graduate from the Citadel. She likes to point out she's a small-business owner and a mother of two.
"I'm the only candidate in this race who's never run for office before, and I'm proud of it," she says.
In this state, it's a foregone conclusion that the Republican nominee will win in November. And right now, polls show Graham leading his Republican challengers by a wide margin.
Long-time political operatives in South Carolina say the two-term senator doesn't really need to sweat this race.
"The whole thing about the Tea Party being such a grandiose threat to him, I think is misleading," says Don Fowler, who teaches political science at the University of South Carolina and was head of the Democratic National Committee during the Clinton administration. "When you just look at the total array of public opinion ideology, Lindsey Graham falls very comfortably within the midpoint of what Republicans think and feel, and that will be reflected in the primary."
That's a theory Graham is banking on.
"We've been a state that looks for the entire package. We want people who are well-grounded in conservative philosophy and ideology, but we seldom elect ideologues," he says.
Graham says he's glad his state is having a conversation about what it means to be a true conservative; it's healthy to do that. But —
"I think I'm gonna win, and I'm gonna win being me," he says.
And he predicts he's going to come out of this election stronger than ever.
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