If establishment Republicans want to know how to run a successful reelection campaign amid Tea Party zeal, they should look to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
After being at the top of conservative groups’ target lists for years, the pragmatic senator is cruising toward renomination after scaring off any serious opponents. Most state observers expect Graham even to win the 50 percent of the vote needed Tuesday to avoid a runoff election.
“This is a model for the rest of the country. We didn’t take on the Tea Party; we co-opted them,” said Katon Dawson, a former state party chairman running Graham’s super-PAC.
Graham has been approaching or above 50 percent in the few recent public polls of the race. None of the half-dozen underfunded candidates running against him have been able to crack double digits.
Even his foes admit he’s likely to pull off a dominant victory on June 10.
“It’s an extremely uphill battle for those guys,” said South Carolina state Sen. Tom Davis (R), a longtime Graham antagonist who considered running against him. “He’s raised a tremendous amount of money, and he’s raised that money for effective purposes. He’s purchased pretty much all the TV airtime; he’s held a lot of free barbecues and breakfasts, and he’s targeted three or four issues that are of particular concern to South Carolina GOP voters to drive that message home.”
Early Warning Signs
Graham’s near insurmountable lead in recent polls wasn’t always the case.
The two-term senator’s poll numbers initially showed him on shaky ground, and he knew early on he had a target on his back. Conservative groups in Washington and Tea Party adherents in the Palmetto State were furious over his vote for the Wall Street bailout, angry at his support of President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees and immigration reform, and uncomfortable with his work to find compromise on climate change legislation.
Even before the 2012 elections were over, national conservative groups were looking forward to challenging Graham.
“If you’re looking to the horizon for 2014, the sun may rise over South Carolina,” Club for Growth President Chris Chocola told reporters in September 2012.
But even by then, Graham had been hard at work preparing for the race. He had millions in the bank and had been quietly working back at home to befriend potential foes and scare off others.
A number of high-profile Republicans who have close ties to the Tea Party refused to challenge Graham, despite heavy lobbying by national and local groups.
“People ask me why I didn’t run. One of the reasons was I couldn’t win,” conservative Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) told The Hill. “Lindsey is a very popular politician, and he’s a very good politician.”
“No one’s ever accused Lindsey Graham of not being an effective and tenacious politician,” Davis added. “You look at a two-term incumbent with $9 million in the bank, and that’s a considerable thing to assess.”
Graham topped $8.5 million spent on the race as of late May, roughly five times what his opponents combined have spent. That’s gone into ads touting his conservative bona fides and a robust field program that has thousands of precinct captains and a county chairman in each county of the state.
“He recognized the threat early on, and he wasn’t going to take anything for granted,” said Graham campaign spokesman Tate Zeigler. “You don’t just wake up one day and have 5,200 precinct captains working.”
Others were ready to help Graham as well. A well-funded super-PAC that backed pro-immigration reform Republicans ran early ads on Graham’s behalf, and the Chamber of Commerce also endorsed him. Dawson and former Canadian Ambassador and state House Speaker David Wilkins, close Graham allies, set up a super-PAC to help him with his reelection. But the race never intensified, so those groups ended up not spending as much as they would have otherwise.
“He didn’t have any of the six congressmen or statewide officials run against him this time around,” said Dawson. “That comes from constituent service, and they all have Lindsey’s cellphone number. He’s on speed dial when any of them have a real problem in Washington.”
Weak Tea Opposition
Another reason for Graham’s dominance was that those who did run against him failed to impress.
South Carolina state Sen. Lee Bright (R) jumped in with strong name recognition among activists, but he bombed in fundraising. Attorney Bill Connor (R), who had some name recognition from a 2010 run for lieutenant governor, joined the race late and didn’t catch on with enough base voters.
Republican consultant Nancy Mace (R), the first female graduate of the Citadel, intrigued national conservatives enough that the Senate Conservatives Fund, run by a top staffer to former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), cut a radio ad attacking Graham right after she jumped in. But her first media appearances didn’t go well, and she’s since avoided the spotlight and struggled with fundraising.
Self-funding businessman Richard Cash (R) never gained traction, despite having some cash to burn, and well-connected Rev. Det Bowers (R) jumped in late and got hamstrung by an old sermon in which he said men who cheat on their wives do so because women have spent too much time doting on their children.
The crowded field also made it hard for any one candidate to rise as the Graham alternative. The six challengers hurt each other in fundraising, and it never became clear who would be the biggest threat. Tea Party groups in the state remain split among the candidates, and national conservative groups never got involved. Even if Graham fails to top 50 percent of the vote, conservative heavyweights are unlikely to invest in the state’s quick two-week runoff.
“It’s ended up being a very lackluster field of opponents,” said Republican strategist Warren Tompkins, a longtime state consultant who’s helped Graham with his direct-mail campaign. “All the saber rattlers and big talkers from around the country who were saying he was their No. 1 target, none of those threats never materialized. People were saying they were going to spend all this money, and all those promises to get in the race were not kept.”
The right stuff
Without a united opposition, Graham was free to deluge the state in advertising touting his work for the state and his stances on conservative issues. He’s traveled around the state hosting free barbecues and breakfasts, and giving speeches even to the most hostile of audiences, talking to Republican groups that had voted to censure him and explaining his positions.
Graham’s work on a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks helped shore up his standing with social conservatives, and his leading role in attacking President Obama on foreign policy — especially on Benghazi — endeared him with the state’s hawkish voters and large military population.
His closing message hits hard on those themes. Graham has taken Obama to task in recent days for the agreement to trade five Taliban commanders for soldier Bowe Bergdahl. His latest ad features a soldier thanking him for helping to secure funds for equipment that saved the soldier’s life.
“He was able to keep the debate on the things he wanted to talk about: foreign policy and national security,” said Mulvaney. “Lindsey did a tremendous job of reminding people why they liked him. … Lindsey will probably win outright, and that’s because he’s the best politician in the state.”