The plot to oust Lindsey Graham

May 7, 2013

If you're a South Carolina Republican who doesn't like Sen. Lindsey Graham, you've got a problem. Graham is popular. Really popular. His approval rating among the state's Republicans hovers in the 60-70 percent range. Those aren't the kinds of numbers that typically foretell successful primary challenges.

In this January file photo Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., talks about gun legislation during the committee's hearing. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
In this January file photo Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) talks about gun legislation during a committee's hearing. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

But as The National Review's Betsy Woodruff reports, "the people that don’t like him really, really, really don’t like him. There are typically a lot of those people at the state convention." And those people came up with a great idea: What if the South Carolina Republican Party chose its nominees at the state convention rather than in primary elections?

What makes this such a great idea is that it can be implemented by the hardcore Republican Party activists who attend the state convention with no input from the broader pool of South Carolina Republicans who vote in the primary election. And, in advance of Saturday's South Carolina Republican Convention, a small band of Graham-haters tried to do just that.

There are two ways to view the conservatives who tried to change the rules to oust  Graham. One school of thought holds that they're what makes the Republican Party such a disciplined, fearsome force in contemporary American politics. "The most brilliant and effective tactical innovation of the American right is the use of the primary," writes MSNBC's Chris Hayes. (By the way, are you watching Hayes's new 8 p.m. show on MSNBC? You should be. It's excellent.)

But it’s also led to Republicans being out of power more -- and facing larger Democratic majorities -- than they would have been otherwise. And that gets to the second way of seeing the GOP’s reliance on primaries: It’s been a tactical success, but a strategic disaster.

If the movement's ruthless use of primary elections deserves real credit for pulling the Republican Party to the right -- and I think it does -- then it also deserves real credit for reelecting President Obama, keeping the Senate in Democratic hands and passing Obamacare.

After all, if the late Sen. Arlen Specter (Penn.) hadn’t been driven from the Republican Party by Sen. Pat Toomey’s primary challenge, then he never would have joined the Democrats and cast the crucial, 60th vote for the Affordable Care Act. If conservative darlings hadn’t beaten more electable Republicans in the 2010 and 2012 primaries, Democrats would almost certainly have lost the Senate in 2010, and they wouldn’t have increased their majority in 2012. And if the Republican primaries hadn’t forced Mitt Romney so far to the right, he would have stood a better chance in the general election.

Or think of it this way: Due to the way seats are apportioned, the Senate has a more pro-Republican tilt than the House. But Republicans have been doing much better in the House than in the Senate. One plausible explanation is that House districts are cut so more extreme candidates can win without problem. There's no gerrymandering at the Senate level, though, so the GOP's affinity for nominate highly ideological candidates is leading them to lose seats. They've wiped out what should be a significant structural advantage for their party in national politics.

The question here is whether the Republican Party -- or conservatism -- has won more through discipline than it has lost through elections. I’m skeptical. The problem is that while primaries are an effective tactic, they don’t fit a larger strategy. In general, the politicians getting knocked off, or scared right, aren’t particularly moderate to begin with. Graham, for instance, got a 92 percent from the American Conservative Union in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, who was taken out at a party convention in 2010, was ranked in the high-80s. Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar was typically in the high-70s. Replacing these quite conservative senators with even more conservative senators wouldn't be much of a win. Replacing them with Democrats -- as happened in Lugar's case, for instance -- is a huge loss.

Perhaps the Republican Party is figuring that out. In the end, South Carolina Republicans chose to keep their primary and, in all likelihood, Lindsey Graham.

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Dylan Matthews | May 7, 2013