Commentary Magazine


GOP Purge? A Tempest in a Tea Pot

The aftermath of the government shutdown has left the Republican Party badly divided. Some in the GOP are still wondering how they were suckered into letting Senator Ted Cruz and his supporters in the House shut down the government in a hopeless attempt to stop ObamaCare. But those who cheered the effort are not so much licking their wounds as they are licking their chops waiting for a chance to knock off some of the Senate Republicans who opposed Cruz’s rerun of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Though he is far from the only Republican to draw the ire of the Tea Party, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham seems to be at the top of their enemies list. Graham earned the ire of some on the right for his sponsorship of the bipartisan immigration reform bill, his support for U.S. military intervention in Libya and Syria, and his open opposition to Rand Paul’s isolationist demagoguery about drone attacks. But most of all he is despised for his occasional willingness to work with Democrats and even President Obama on certain issues. As such, their problems with him are, as with much of the motivations for the call for internal GOP bloodletting, more attitudinal than anything else. And while there is good reason for skepticism about the willingness of most conservatives to jettison such effective advocates like Mitch McConnell, there seems to be a consensus that if there is any Republican who will be forced to walk the plank by his party, it is Graham. However, two new polls show that the claims of Tea Partiers that Graham will be toast in 2014 may be empty boasts. If these numbers hold up, it may be fair to say that if Graham can survive in the ultra-conservative Palmetto State, it’s not clear that any so-called member of the GOP establishment need fear crossing Cruz.

In the Winthrop University survey, Graham’s approval ratings were low, with 44.1 percent disapproving while only 39.7 in favor of his performance–though Republicans backed him 45.2 percent to 40.1 percent. Given that his approval ratings were in the 70s earlier in the year, that shows some real vulnerability. But when matched up against potential challengers, Graham doesn’t seem to have much to worry about.

These numbers were similar to the findings of a Harper/Conservative Intel poll about Graham’s approval ratings. But Harper also polled South Carolina Republicans about a possible primary matchup of Graham against his likely challengers and those results will give the senator’s critics little comfort. Graham leads the field of Republicans with 51 percent with his most formidable challengers, State Senator Lee Bright and Nancy Mace, trailing badly with 15 and 4 percent respectively. Graham also easily beats his most likely Democratic opponent in a general-election matchup 47 to 30 percent. None of this guarantees Graham reelection next year, as his challengers have plenty of time to raise more money and close the gap with the incumbent. But that gap is so large that their quest must still be termed a steep uphill climb at best.

What explains Graham’s seeming ability to hang on in one of the most conservative states in the union at a time when conservatives are calling for his blood? Well, one possible reason might be that even in South Carolina, the Tea Party is not as popular as some people assume it to be. The Winthrop poll showed that only 47 percent of Republicans had a positive view of it, a number that fell to only 28 percent when all South Carolinians are polled. It should also be noted that only ten percent of Republicans personally identify with the Tea Party.

That’s a stunning result in a state where, according to Harper, 69 percent of Republicans call themselves conservative. It also explains why the poll of Republicans about potential 2016 presidential candidates also showed that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was in first place, supported by 19 percent of South Carolinians while Cruz was in second with 17 percent, with the rest split among the various other GOP possibilities.

In other words, for all of Graham’s problems, he may not be in as much difficulty as his critics think. More to the point, South Carolina Republicans may not be marching to the beat of the Tea Party drummers calling for wholesale fratricide of GOP moderates in 2014. If it’s not going to happen there to Graham, that makes it difficult to argue that the calls for a Tea Party purge of “establishment” Republicans is anything more than a tempest in teapot.

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