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Tea party’s next front: Both Carolinas

Taylor Batten
Taylor Batten is The Observer's editorial page editor.

The national fight between tea party Republicans and everyone else is a long-running war, and each election and clash in Congress is one more battle within it. The next big confrontations (after a February debt ceiling skirmish) are the 2014 primaries – and both Carolinas will have a major say in whether the tea party regains recently lost ground or continues to lose steam.

Uncompromising conservatives fill the U.S. Senate ballots in both states. In North Carolina, at least five Republicans will compete to face Sen. Kay Hagan and only N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis ever tries to portray himself as a moderate. In South Carolina, Sen. Lindsey Graham will try to shake four fellow Republicans who consider him insufficiently conservative.

If Graham and Hagan (or even Tillis) prevail, the tea party wilts further. If they lose, the hardliners are resurgent again.

The Greenville (S.C.) County Republican Party last week touted its executive committee’s passage of a resolution backing Graham’s defeat in the June primary. Six county parties have approved the resolution.

The resolution details 29 ways in which Graham has not been in lockstep with the S.C. Republican Party. They include such sins as:

 Supporting, with almost every other Republican senator, a two-year compromise extension of the Bush tax cuts in 2010.

 Joining with 15 other Republicans to allow debate on a gun control bill;

 Joining Speaker John Boehner, Sen. Marco Rubio and many others in criticizing Rep. Michele Bachmann for suggesting that an aide to Hillary Clinton has ties to Muslim extremists.

 Supporting the Export-Import Bank, which helps U.S. firms compete with foreign companies. Reauthorization of the bank passed the Senate 78-20.

 Saying, in October 2009, about the S.C. Republican Party: “We’re not going to be the party of angry white guys.”

 In 2008, supporting TARP, President Bush’s program that helped save American banks. The government has recouped all it put in, plus $11 billion.

These stances are not all that controversial to most voters. But to those conservative activists with sway in Republican primaries, this heresy must end.

To be sure, Graham seeks bipartisan solutions to the country’s problems. He was a member of both the Gang of 8 that sought a bipartisan compromise on immigration and the Gang of 14 that worked on judicial nominations.

But he’s no liberal. He threatened to block every Obama appointment until he got better answers on Benghazi, and the American Conservative Union gave him a rating of 92 (on a scale of 0 to 100) in 2012.

The tea party’s rise helped keep Republicans from taking control of the Senate in 2010 and 2012. Now the party has another legitimate shot.

After losing to an exceptionally beatable Barack Obama in 2012, Republicans vowed to steer back from the edge. That didn’t last long, as the party establishment went along with the tea partiers in forcing a partial government shutdown.

Now Speaker Boehner is demonstrating his freedom from that wing of the party, labeling it “ridiculous” and having “lost all credibility” by opposing a bipartisan budget deal last month. That kind of resolve will be tested in coming months.

A Republican is almost certain to win the S.C. general election, whether it’s Graham or an upstart Republican challenger. In more-purple North Carolina, though, a tea party ascension in the primary could seal the race for Hagan, and keep the whole Senate in Democrats’ control.

Reach me at tbatten@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tbatten1.

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