COLUMBIA — The battle for the future of the Republican Party in South Carolina will reach its climax in June as U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham squares off against four primary challengers.
That fight has been brewing for years, pitting the state’s GOP business establishment against a mix of tea party libertarians and ideological purists.
Those activists fault Graham largely for, they say, being too moderate. But establishment Republicans say that criticism comes from only a small, but vocal, minority within the S.C. GOP.
The tea party libertarians appear to be gaining traction – backing several winners in recent congressional elections, for instance. Activists also have chalked up other wins in county parties, which have shifted more to the right as activists have become more involved.
The party’s tea party libertarian wing also has tried – but failed – to wrest control of the state party. That failure, establishment Republicans say, is evidence the activists remain an insignificant threat.
But the tea party libertarians are angling for more power.
Lawsuits have been filed to “close” GOP primaries, allowing only registered Republicans to vote and barring the independents who made the GOP South Carolina’s political majority. Thus far, those efforts have failed.
But proposed state legislation also would allow political parties to drop primaries altogether and nominate candidates at conventions, a sign, some say, that Republicans are set on purifying the party, even if that means disenfranchising voters.
The S.C. GOP’s push to the right has been most pronounced in the election of tea party-backed candidates to Congress, including Indian Land’s Mick Mulvaney in the 5th District, Jeff Duncan, Trey Gowdy and Tim Scott, all first elected in the tea party wave of 2010. (Scott since has been appointed to the U.S. Senate.)
Graham’s June primary opponents are hoping to reignite that wave, invoking the names of national tea party favorites – including U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky – as they campaign.
But, thus far, Graham’s primary opponents – state Sen. Lee Bright of Spartanburg, Richard Cash of Easley, Bill Conner of Orangeburg and Nancy Mace of Charleston – are little known and financially outgunned by Graham, a two-term incumbent who has $7 million in his campaign re-election account.
However, the fight to determine the future of the S.C. GOP will become more competitive if outside groups – including FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund – decide to back one of Graham’s challengers, lifting them out of obscurity.
Even if one Graham challenger can close the money gap, longtime supporters say the state’s GOP base – less vocal than the activists, but larger – is committed to candidates like Graham, who, allies say, embodies President Ronald Reagan’s political philosophy that disagreeing with someone 20 percent of the time does not make them an enemy.