Tea Party's overlooked blunder last night: How did it let Lindsey Graham survive?

Yes, Cantor is the big story. But here's why failing to oust the South Carolina senator was a massive mess-up

Published June 11, 2014 1:33PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Jason Reed)
(Reuters/Jason Reed)

Yes, ousting Eric Cantor was some achievement. But on some level, the Tea Party should be ashamed of itself today.

And not just for the already obvious and well-documented reasons for which it should be ashamed of itself, such as a stubborn misunderstanding of the federal debt ceiling that's led to a half-dozen or so instances of arbitrary economic near-apocalypse. Or all the other shitty positions. Of course they should be ashamed of that today, and every day.

But today we're just talking tactics and strategy. Because last night could have brought the Tea Party even more glory! It was right there, guys, marked on your calendar, June 10, 2014: not just Cantor, but the South Carolina Republican Senate primary. The first chance since the inception of the Tea Party to kick Sen. Lindsey Graham out of a job. And Graham eased his way into another six-year term without so much as breaking a sweat. How could you let this happen?

The "Tea Party vs. Establishment" paradigm this year has mostly been misapplied in Senate races. In Kentucky, Georgia, Nebraska and North Carolina, all of the candidates, including the supposed "Establishment" types, ran as far to the right into Tea Party policy territory as possible. No one, for example, had much good to say about certain bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform proposals under discussion. The Senate race in Mississippi -- which now awaits a runoff -- fit more tightly within the narrative. Thad Cochran, the Establishment guy, ran his campaign on a defense of bringing home sweet, sweet appropriations cash for the people back home, something that's strangely anathema to Mississippi Tea Partyers.

But even old Thad distanced himself from immigration reform and Secret Amnesty for the primary. Lindsey Graham didn't. Perhaps because it wouldn't have made much sense for the co-author of several comprehensive immigration reform proposals to do so -- although that didn't stop John McCain when he ran for reelection in 2010 or Marco Rubio as he tried to rebuild his standing among conservatives late last year. Nope, Lindsey Graham is still all about "Grahamnesty" and the benefits of cheap foreign labor! Consider this astounding moment from Molly Ball's latest, typically excellent campaign trail dispatch:

Onstage in Seneca, Graham is talking about the need for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and more legal immigration. "Whether you believe it or not, there are a lot of jobs you can't find American workers to do," he says. "Just travel around with me—I can prove it to you."

Rarely do you see a well-known RINO in the midst of a 2014 GOP primary come so close, as some would see it, to diminishing the capacity of the American worker. Consider the pounding Sen. Marco Rubio took just last summer when an aide of his told a reporter that some American workers "just can't cut it." And here's Lindsey Graham doing it out in the open, onstage at a campaign event.

Graham is the closest we've seen this cycle to an Establishment candidate waiting to be toppled. There's immigration and his occasional dalliances with climate change legislation. He's a go-to guy on the Hill for big business leaders and brings home the Evil Pork for South Carolina. Aside from that, he's extremely right-wing ... but that's already four Tea Party red flags! Usually you only need one to get the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund sicced on your ass.

How is Graham still around?

Money helped. He had lots of it! "He raised $13 million and seeded a formidable campaign operation," Ball writes in her piece, "with more than 5,000 precinct captains and six field offices around the state."

And then it was a matter of splitting the field. Last night, Graham trounced six no-name losers (Cantor had just one opponent, so there was no vote-splitting to be done). None of the more formidable possible opponents, like Rep. Mick Mulvaney, decided to run against him. That's largely because Graham bought Mulvaney off with a position, Mulvaney's acceptance of which some might call a Tea Party ethical violation. "Through a combination of intimidation and enticement—as when he helped a conservative congressman, Mick Mulvaney, get a seat on the House Financial Services Committee—he kept the most prominent potential opponents out of the race," Ball explains.

In 2012, the Club for Growth listed Graham as its No. 1 2014 target. Oops! Cantor will deservedly get all the headlines today, but the Tea Party is fortunate that Graham's race has been too boring to garner much national attention this year, because there's little excuse for them not at least giving him a good scare.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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