In 2010, the Tea Party began picking off Republican members of Congress it considered insufficiently conservative. And those primary victories were, properly, treated as huge news. They showed, or seemed to show, how deeply vulnerable Republicans were if they showed even a hint of compromise. The victories seemed to herald a new norm in the Republican Party where no efforts to work across the aisle would be permitted — even by staunch, respected conservatives.
By the same token, Lindsey Graham's easy ride to reelection in South Carolina tonight should also be big news. In recent years, there's been no Republican legislator who's worked as hard to find compromise as Graham. He was there on immigration reform, which passed the Senate, but he's also been there on a slew of initiatives that didn't pass, and where far fewer Republicans joined the effort. He worked with John Kerry and Joe Lieberman on a climate bill, and, early on, with the Obama administration on closing Guantanamo Bay. He even said he would be willing to break Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge to strike a big budget deal.
Graham was easily, overwhelmingly reelected. He powered through his June Republican primary with 57 percent of the vote — the runner-up captured only 15 percent. And, tonight, he effortlessly dispatched his Democratic challenger. Graham's in a strong enough position that he's even talking about running for president in 2016.
And all this is happening in South Carolina. Graham isn't a Republican from Maine. He's in a conservative state. He's been facing an active Tea Party. And he's still standing. Hell, he's popular.
Graham's win shows, at the least, that compromise isn't always deadly for Republicans. And a clearer look at the Tea Party's major wins shows that compromise really isn't what sets their victims apart. Eric Cantor certainly didn't run a conciliatory House. Utah Sen. Bob Bennett didn't hand Obama a crucial vote on any major issues. Sen. Richard Lugar wasn't agreeing to raise taxes or pass Obamacare.
The Tea Party has targeted establishment Republicans and, for various reasons, managed to bring a few of them down. But Graham's victory suggests that simply being willing to work across the aisle actually isn't enough to lose your seat, just as Cantor's loss shows that fighting Obama at every turn isn't enough to keep it. Mitt Romney's win in the 2012 Republican primaries arguably shows the same thing — though Romney ran to the right, his record was nevertheless that of a Massachusetts moderate, and he won the GOP's nomination anyway.
If we're going to make a huge deal out of every Republican who loses a primary challenge and can maybe, if you squint, be thought of as a moderate, than we should also take note of the elected Republicans who have shown themselves willing to compromise and are thriving in today's GOP.
Update: It's also worth noting that Susan Collins, the most moderate Republican in the Senate, also cruised to reelection tonight. She's from Maine, so it's perhaps not quite as striking as Graham's survival. But note that Maine does have a hardcore tea partier as it's governor, so there, too, you might have expected a genuinely moderate Republican to face serious heat in the primaries.