WASHINGTON D.C. (AP) — To gauge the limits of the tea party’s ability to frighten re-election-seeking Republicans into a rightward panic, spend time with Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
One day he’s blasting tea party hero Rand Paul on the Senate floor, calling the Kentucky senator’s 13-hour filibuster – which criticized U.S. drone policy – wrong-headed and “ill-informed.”
Another day Graham is at a groundbreaking ceremony in Greer, mixing jokes and politics in a fashion even his enemies have to admire. Citing a January CBS News poll showing Congress’ approval rating at 12 percent, he asked: “Who are the 12 percent, and what do they like?”
Three years ago, South Carolina Republican clubs were condemning Graham, calling him too moderate and too willing to cooperate with President Barack Obama and other Democrats. Nikki Haley, now the state’s governor, supported the censures. Graham seemed a prime candidate for the type of tea-party-backed insurrections that ousted GOP senators in Utah and Indiana and prompted other senators to steer hard right to save their jobs.
Today, even his critics say Graham is on track to win a third Senate term next year.
“His approval numbers are pretty high,” said Lin Bennett, executive director of the Charleston County Republican Party, one of two major groups that censured Graham three years ago for supporting a bank bailout and for being too accommodating on immigration.
“He offers great constituent services,” Bennett said. “One unhappy county isn’t enough.”
Graham calls himself a proud conservative. But he makes no apologies for sometimes seeking compromise with Democrats, which some tea partyers consider villainy.
“How do we get out of this mess?” Graham asked the Greer crowd, referring to the nation’s economic troubles. “The same way the country has survived and thrived for the last 200 years: find common ground. Try to find a way to make everybody a winner instead of everybody a loser.”
Graham’s bipartisan talk contrasts with the recent tones of Senate Republican leaders Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and John Cornyn. Both men face possible GOP primary challenges from the right next year, and they have sharpened their criticisms of Democrats.