LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer, in for Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. In the last three years, the Republican Party has lost control of the House, the Senate and the White House. The result is a smaller political party in search of direction. One Congressional district is a kind of microcosm. It's the northeastern part of South Carolina. That's where Congressman Bob Inglis is facing a stiff challenge in the Republican primary. NPR's Andrea Seabrook visited that district.
ANDREA SEABROOK: By any measure, Bob Inglis is a solid conservative. In the '90s, he was a vehement opponent of President Bill Clinton. Last year, he got an "A" from the National Rifle Association, an 84 percent approval rating from the American Conservative Union. His votes to cut budgets, leave markets unregulated and restrict abortions put him among the most right-wing of his party.
But last week, Inglis did something that really ticked off some of his constituents. He voted for reprimanding Joe Wilson, the man who yelled you lie at President Obama during a speech to Congress. Inglis tries to explain.
Representative BOB INGLIS (Republican, South Carolina): He admits that he violated the rules, right? And he apologized to the president. And what I said to him privately is, Joe, there's a second thing you got to do, and that is apologize to the forum. And…
(Soundbite of crowd chatter)
SEABROOK: About 75 people are packed into the back room of a Fuddruckers in Greenville, South Carolina. It's supposed to be a meeting about health care - a let's talk, he calls it. But the subject of Joe Wilson's outburst dominates.
Unidentified Man: You turned on one man who did point it out (unintelligible).
(Soundbite of crowd chatter, cheering and applause)
SEABROOK: It goes on like this for almost two hours. People are mad about Iraq, angry about all the bailouts, and annoyed that Inglis voted for the banking bailout.
Rep. INGLIS: Well, sometimes we have let's holler rather than let's talk, you know. We had a little bit of hollering today. You know, I think that what I heard is the frustration that people feel from a sense of powerlessness to stop the open wide, we're going to ram this down.
SEABROOK: The problem for Inglis is that crowd wasn't blaming President Obama and leaders in Congress. They're angry at him for not doing enough to stop the Democrats. But Inglis says he's not worried. He believes when the Republican primary rolls around next June, cooler heads will prevail.
Rep. INGLIS: Our challenge as Republicans is to win at offering solutions with a hopeful, optimistic voice, rather than shrinking the party down into a snarling few.
SEABROOK: A noble aspiration, maybe, but not much political protection. Inglis already has four Republican challengers, all of whom say Inglis isn't conservative enough.
Dave Thomas, a South Carolina state senator who'd like to take Inglis' seat, sits in his small law office, his desk facing a framed poster of Ronald Reagan. It's from a primary rally in 1980 when Thomas was a young Republican lucky enough to get to drive one of the cars that picked Reagan up from the airport.
State Senator DAVE THOMAS (Republican, South Carolina): I said Governor Reagan, I just think the world of you, etcetera, etcetera. And he said, well, David, it's not about me. It's about the cause. Don't forget that. It's about the cause.
And that's right. It's about the cause. A lot of Republicans believe they've been let down, abandoned, because their principles have not been adhered to, and so there's a kind of revolt going on.
SEABROOK: Inglis' other main challenger is a well-known prosecutor named Trey Gowdy. He, too, says this election is partly about Inglis and partly about the Republican Party and what it will be in the future.
Mr. TREY GOWDY (Attorney): I think there are a lot of people that are justifiably angry that throughout the decade of the 2000s, we did not shrink the size of government. We became a faint echo of the Democrat Party. And if that's what you want to be, then don't expect the conservatives to go along with you.
SEABROOK: There is a risk to this, though. If conservatives purify the party, as they call it, they could end up with such a right-wing message that they lose even more moderate seats to the Democrats.
But that doesn't seem to bother this crowd. Outside that Fuddruckers in Greenville, Harry Kibbler has parked his pickup truck. A toilet is bolted to the back with what appears to be a man upside-down in the bowl. Bill Raish points at it.
Mr. BILL RAISH: It looks like Bob Inglis going down the commode.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SEABROOK: Kibbler says it's political theater with a serious message about Congress.
Mr. HARRY KIBBLER: 2010, there's a lot of folks that need to be replaced. It's not just Bob. This is the first shot of the RINO hunt.
SEABROOK: RINO: R-I-N-O. It means Republican in Name Only. And RINO hunt has its sights on Bob Inglis and any other Republican who doesn't hew strictly to the conservative message.
Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Greenville, South Carolina.