Why don’t South Carolina conservatives like Lindsey Graham?

May 6, 2013

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) faced his most vocal critics this weekend at the annual South Carolina Republican Party convention, though aides and state party leaders say this year's criticism of the senator didn't match the opposition he's faced in previous years.


Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). (Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

As they've done several times in the past, a few hundred tea party-inspired activists attempted to seat a convention chairman who would help them remove Graham from the party, but their efforts failed when party leaders declined to recognize their motions and moved on with the day's proceedings.

Adding to the weekend drama, a recent Winthrop Poll found that Graham's approval rating among Palmetto State Republicans and GOP-leaning independents is down from 72 percent to 58 percent. In an encouraging sign for Graham, however, the same poll found that a majority of registered voters, Republicans and GOP-leaning independents backed a "path to citizenship" for illegal immigrants, if they took a series of steps to earn citizenship.

So why does a well-entrenched member of the Washington establishment, who is often quoted and well-regarded on issues of national security, continue to face such strong, vocal opposition among diehard conservatives and GOP activists back home?

Dorian Bucholz's body language said it all. When asked Saturday about Graham, she sighed and smiled: "Lindsey does good things and then he'll do some bad things. He'll be on the path to conservatism and then steer off that track."

But pressed to name something Graham has done to upset her, Bucholz didn't have an answer. Eventually, she cited Graham's votes for Obama's Supreme Court nominees and for not more forcefully criticizing the White House's economic policies.

Graham's poll numbers appear to be slipping in part because he may face at least two conservative challengers in a primary contest next year that are likely to shave off some of his support.

Several delegates attending the convention wore stickers supporting Richard Cash, who owns a fleet of ice cream trucks and a used car business in Anderson, S.C., and is the father of eight home-schooled children. Cash narrowly lost a 2010 runoff vote to Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.).

One of Cash's supporters, Jonathan Hill, said he supports him in part because "Graham is in a lot of trouble with me."

"I feel like he doesn't represent my views and that he's arrogant with people he doesn't agree with," Hill said, citing Graham's votes in support of President Obama's Supreme Court nominees and his recent work on immigration reform.

"He's been in support of supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants," Hill said. "It's not right to the legal immigrants who are here to turn a blind eye to illegals. I realize it's a complex issue, but I feel he's being wrong about this."

(And if you think the concerns about Graham are confined to a choice few at the state party convention, Beth Reinhard of the National Journal found similar sentiments among conservatives in Charleston last week.)

When Graham rose to spoke to the convention, he acknowledged his critics, but warned that “We’re going to end up in the same boat, whether you like it or not, because there’s holes in the other boat.”

Later, he attempted to win them over by joking that “The only thing I’m good at is being me.”

Several of his supporters agreed.

"He's a principled guy and takes tough stands," said Randall Wallace, of Myrtle Beach. "Most people in this state are that way, they just don't like when you disagree with them."

Le Frye, a GOP political consultant based in Lexington, suggested that Graham will once again survive, in part because Republicans know that Graham's broader statewide appeal will help them hold on to the Senate seat.

As Frye said, "Lindsey plays well with people who are out working today -- and not at a party convention."

Follow Ed O'Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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