Disagreement boiled over most publicly when a few hundred delegates attempted to seat a convention chairman who would help them remove Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) from the party. Graham, who has earned a place in Washington as one of the key players in the party establishment and a frequent critic of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, faced resistance from conservatives upset with his work to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws and his support for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees.
Graham is up for reelection next year, but many of his critics hope a more genuinely conservative candidate will emerge to challenge him in a primary.
The senator acknowledged his critics when he spoke onstage, but warned them: “We’re going to end up in the same boat, whether you like it or not, because there’s holes in the other boat.”
When he turned to immigration, Graham framed the forthcoming debate as critical to ensuring the nation’s security — and the future of the GOP. Citing the immigration status of the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing, he said the Obama administration had poorly enforced current laws and failed to notice that one of the suspect’s friends had overstayed a student visa.
The crowd appeared to be in step with Graham until he began discussing what to do about the legal status of more than 11 million illegal immigrants. Almost immediately, several in the crowd shouted: “No amnesty!”
“No amnesty, I’ve got it,” he said, cutting them off. “Now here’s the question: After 2012, the question for this party is: Do you believe that we can grow the vote among all sectors of this country?”
Graham’s message was clear: Reforming the nation’s immigration laws is critical to increasing GOP support among the fast-growing Hispanic population, which generally espouses the socially conservative views held by Republicans anyway and could very well eventually support the party’s candidates.
“Conservatism is an asset, not a liability,” Graham said. “You don’t have to be embarrassed about your social conservatism. You just have to talk about it in ways that we can grow this party.”
Finding a way to expand the party’s appeal was clearly on the minds of delegates Saturday, with many conflicted over who should lead the party into the future.
“They have to be strong, honest, able to stand up for what you believe in and not be intimidated,” said Stephanie McKay, a legal aide from Bishopville, S.C. “Without someone like that, nothing’s going to change.”
Dorian Bucholz, a first-time delegate from Charleston, S.C., said determining the party’s next presidential nominee will be difficult “because there aren’t really faces sticking out being strong conservatives. But we’ve got to get our act together because 2016 is going to come fast.”