WASHINGTON — Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., ought to be a prime target for a Tea Party challenge. He helped write the Senate’s overhaul of immigration laws that provided a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, backed President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominees and expressed a willingness to raise taxes as part of a larger deal to address the nation’s fiscal health - all perilous positions in a deeply conservative state.
Yet none of the six Republicans in South Carolina’s House delegation or any statewide elected officials stepped forward to take on Graham. Instead, as his June primary approaches, the incumbent is using some of his $7.5 million in campaign funds to fill televisions screens in the state with ads as he faces a field of relative no-names.
Graham’s unexpectedly strong standing underscores a larger point: The Tea Party may be nudging Republicans to the right in Congress with the implicit threat of primary challenges, but when it comes to recruiting quality challengers to take out incumbent senators, it is falling decidedly short.
Graham, who said that if he won re-nomination he would not have “much of a race” in the fall, is among eight Republican incumbent senators who faced a challenge at the start of the year. Now only one of them, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, is locked in a heated race with a challenger who has significant resources. The incumbents are not all totally safe bets yet, particularly Graham, who will face a runoff if he does not capture a majority of the primary vote. But the officials who would have been the most formidable challengers to Republican incumbents in Texas, South Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas and Tennessee stood down.
“People take a look at it and they say, ‘Is there an opportunity here or not?’?” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who easily defeated Rep. Steve Stockman in a primary last month. “And I think most of them, the credible candidates, looked at it and said, ‘There’s not an opportunity here,’ so they decided to take a pass, which leaves it to the second- and third-tier candidates.”
The incumbents also took lessons from watching two former Senate colleagues, Robert F. Bennett of Utah and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, lose nominating contests. They have secured endorsements, stockpiled money and, in some cases, adopted a more conservative voting record. What is more, the most politically potent conservative groups are largely avoiding targeting Republican Senate incumbents - which starves the challengers of the validation and money they need.
“One of the reasons why those incumbents lost is that they didn’t take their opponents seriously,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “These guys take them seriously this time. And they should.”
The two senators up for re-election with the most money on hand at the end of last year were Republicans facing primaries, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, and Graham. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee moved to lock down the support of every major elected Republican in his state last year, well before the filing deadline for this year’s election.
And Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, eyeing his state’s sharp turn to the right, made sure to align his votes with the fiscally conservative Club for Growth 84 percent of the time last year, lifting his lifetime voting average with the group to 74 percent.
Being part of the active opposition to Obama, a detested figure for the right, also has helped the incumbents within their party. As a new generation of Republicans has been elected to the Senate in the last two elections as part of a conservative backlash to the president, the party overall has moved rightward and its elected officials have become identified with combat, not compromise.
“There’s no question that our caucus has added more conservatives in the last few years, and as that has happened the center of gravity has shifted,” said Sen. Mike Lee, the Utah Republican who unseated Bennett in 2010.
Chris Chocola, the Club for Growth president, was even blunter about the impact of new conservative senators like Lee, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky. “They’ve influenced the rest of them,” he said. “The rest of them are scared of getting beat.”