WASHINGTON — Republican strategists are holding up Sen. Lindsey Graham's primary victory on Tuesday as a model for how mainstream GOP incumbents can beat back right-wing insurgencies.
Graham was viewed as having chinks in his conservative armor heading into the primary, but he easily dispatched six tea party challengers, winning every county in the state and taking 56 percent of the vote. He is favored for re-election to a third term in November, when he will face Democrat state Sen. Brad Hutto.
Graham's strategy — coming home often, blanketing the state with advertising, and confronting conservative criticism head-on — could merit a chapter in future political science textbooks.
"This is classic Politics 101," said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman who runs an independent political action committee that supports Graham's re-election. "A lot of times guys go up there and stick their head in the Potomac and it fills up with water. Lindsey Graham was from West Main Street, South Carolina."
The six tea party candidates argued Graham has been in Congress too long and is too willing to compromise with Democrats on issues like immigration, and they criticized him for backing President Barack Obama's two Supreme Court nominees.
Some tea party activists initially hoped their field of candidates would narrow to whichever one appeared best positioned to force Graham into a runoff. But as the campaign wore on, the six dug in, hoping they would collectively hold him under 50 percent of the primary vote.
It didn't work.
"They thought these so-called outside forces were going to come in and spend a bunch of money, and the help would come, but I bet they all feel like George Custer," said Warren Tompkins, a South Carolina Republican strategist. "The reinforcements never made it and there is death on the battlefield."
The military metaphor is apt.
Graham, a colonel in the Air Force Reserves and a national defense hawk, shored up his conservative bona fides by calling for a more robust Pentagon budget to counter what he says is the rising threat of radical Islam across the globe.
And in the campaign's final days, two national security topics dominated the headlines: the House GOP's decision to appoint a select committee to investigate the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, and the Obama administration's decision to swap five Taliban fighters for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Graham says both are Democratic scandals.
"That really played to his strengths," Tompkins said.
Graham's primary victory is even more instructive when compared to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's stunning primary defeat the same night to a virtually unknown college professor also backed by the tea party.
Cantor was blindsided by the challenge from the right, while Graham began preparing for it years ago by raising millions of dollars. Cantor offered mixed signals on whether immigration reform legislation should offer undocumented immigrants a path to legal status, while Graham co-sponsored legislation including that provision.
"Whereas Eric Cantor often tried to be all things to all Republicans — one minute a moderate, the next a conservative, one minute an ally of Speaker (John) Boehner, the next a leading opponent — Graham has stayed the course on most issues," said Geoffrey Skelley, associated editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "Thus, when Graham has taken ownership of his one or two seeming affronts to his party, voters are more likely to overlook those breaches of the party line."
Graham made no apologies for supporting an immigration compromise opposed by conservatives who aren't aligned with business interests. He argued it was a problem that could be solved only with bipartisan input, and Republicans were suffering politically for fighting such a deal.
In comments Tuesday before the polls closed, Graham told reporters in Greenville a primary result giving him more than 50 percent of the vote would affirm his strategy.
"It would mean, keep being Lindsey Graham and that conservatism is appreciated but working to solve problems is equally appreciated," Graham said. "Somebody has got to fix immigration and the fact I've tried, I think, will be a statement by the primary electorate that we want you to try to do hard things, not just talk all the time."
Graham said his race was a referendum on practical conservatism versus ideology.
"I am proud to say I come from a long line of practical conservatives," Graham said.
Contributing: Rudolph Bell, The Greenville (S.C.) News