HONEA PATH, S.C. — Four years after the summer of rage that fueled the tea party movement, the political circuit is much quieter — even in Republican bastions like this. It's not clear whether conservatives who rallied against President Barack Obama's health care overhaul during raucous town hall-style meetings are tired, wary, complacent or simply saving their strength for a big push in next year's elections.
Whatever the reason, the more muted tone was palpable as conservative lawmakers in South Carolina fanned out across their state to meet with constituents this week during the first congressional break since the disclosure that the Internal Revenue Service inappropriately targeted tea party and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny.
Lawmakers generally found small crowds at town hall meetings and tepid angst about the IRS scandal. They got just a few complaints about "amnesty" for immigrants even though a bipartisan group on Capitol Hill is making progress toward comprehensive immigration revisions and the issue long has riled the political right.
Local officials and residents in western communities near Spartanburg, Greenville and Anderson speculated on possible reasons. Is it the slowly recovering economy and higher home values, some asked. Or the grudging realization that "Obamacare" won't be rescinded, and millions of people living here illegally won't be deported? The sudden shrinking of the deficit? Disgust with politicians of both parties?
The temperature among conservatives "is not as high as it has been," said Starr town council member Ed Sokosl, who supported Newt Gingrich of nearby Georgia for president. He stared straight ahead and added: "I don't know why."
Sokol, 65, was among the handful of volunteer firefighters and local officials who greeted Rep. Jeff Duncan when he stopped by to chat in Starr, and later in equally tiny Honea Path.
Duncan, a two-term, tea party-backed Republican, called for greater security on the Mexican border, and new drilling for oil and gas off the South Carolina coast. He spent most of his time, however, on a topic that infuriates Democrats when tea partyers highlight it: the importance of bringing federal grants to home districts.
"There are so many grants available in this country," Duncan told firefighters in Honea Path. He said his office will host a district seminar on writing grant applications, noting, "sometimes it's how you ask, more than what you ask for."
The firefighters smiled and nodded. No one mentioned the possible inconsistency of campaigning for less government spending while also fighting to secure federal dollars from Washington. Local physician and Honea Path Fire Chief Jimmy Smith said grants from FEMA -- the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- helped pay for fire trucks, a big generator and other needs in his town.
"I'm not sure the average citizen understands the role of the federal government," Smith said quietly as Duncan admired the equipment.
Duncan, like all of South Carolina's GOP House members, angered northeastern Republican colleagues by voting earlier this year against emergency FEMA funding for victims of Hurricane Sandy. Duncan said in an interview that the Sandy aid -- ultimately approved with mostly Democratic votes -- added to the deficit. By contrast, he said, FEMA grants are budgeted annually, which is "the right way to do things."
Whether conservative activism is waning or merely catching its breath, the apparent lull adds uncertainty to a Republican Party that's still coping with consecutive losses to Barack Obama -- and facing a potentially long path to selecting its next nominee. First, however, the 2014 congressional and gubernatorial elections will prove whether the tea party movement can repeat its huge successes in the 2010 mid-term campaigns.
One politician to watch is Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Some county Republican clubs in the state formally censured him in 2009 for working with Democrats on immigration ideas. But many party insiders think Graham is well-positioned to win a third term next year, even as he pushes a bipartisan immigration overhaul harder than ever.
If Congress, including the GOP-controlled House, fails to pass a major immigration bill this year, Graham told the Spartanburg Rotary Club on Tuesday, Republicans won't win the White House anytime soon "because it's killing us with Hispanics." Growers of peaches, peppers and other crops are desperate for Mexicans who will do the hard work that Americans won't, Graham said, and a successful bill must include an eventual pathway to citizenship for people who entered the country illegally.
It's the kind of comment that inflamed South Carolina Republicans four years ago. If it bothered any of the 125 Rotarians, they didn't show it in the Piedmont Club's elegant dining room, where a classical guitarist played during lunch
Later that day, Rep. Mick Mulvaney said he didn't know what to expect at his two-hour town hall meeting in Union, southeast of Spartanburg. Past town halls, the second-term Republican said, have drawn four to 400 people. The one on May 13, in Camden, attracted about 40.
The one in Union -- Mulvaney's first such event since the IRS scandal broke -- drew 20. Some had to be coaxed to ask a question.
Mulvaney is a tea party favorite whose district includes many up-for-grabs voters in the Charlotte suburbs. Like Graham, he says South Carolina's farmers, hoteliers and restaurateurs are desperate for more low-wage workers, which an immigration overhaul could provide.
Mulvaney is more wary of details, however, stopping short of embracing a pathway to citizenship for those here illegally. "I think you're going to see immigration reform," he told the Union audience. "I have no idea what it's going to look like."
Back in Starr, Sokol and some friends discussed possible reasons for what they see as a lull in political intensity, even for a non-election year. Sokol said it's probably a mistake to think the IRS scandal and the furor over a fatal attack on Americans in Benghazi, Libya, are bugle calls to rile up conservatives against Democrats. Instead, he said, the scandals that excite cable news talkers may simply remind many Americans that both parties repeatedly disappoint them.
"There's so much stuff going on right now, you don't know who the good ones are," Sokol said. "You wonder, who can you vote for?"
Al Gundry, 72, who labels himself a conservative, said of the Washington controversies: "People have heard so much about it, they've become numb."
Rick Adkins, Duncan's Anderson-based district director, said the political calm might not last. "My suspicion is the tea party's not dead," Adkins said. "I think it may be resurrected."
Perhaps so. But for one sunny week in South Carolina, people seemed willing to welcome the start of summer, hope the economy keeps improving, and take a break from the shouting matches that shook the political world during Obama's first term.
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