Graham says he expects a GOP primary test

abeam@thestate.comJuly 15, 2013 

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Sen. Lindsey Graham

FILE PHOTOGRAPH — the state

“I’m a Ronald Reagan conservative,” U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters before speaking to a few hundred people at the Columbia Rotary Club on Monday. “You get 80 percent of what you want, that’s a good day.”

It’s the other 20 percent that could get Graham in trouble with S.C. GOP primary voters next year, when the Seneca Republican’s Senate seat is expected to be the main event in a primary season that will see voters deciding 11 statewide races.

In February, Graham’s approval rating among S.C. Republicans was 71 percent, according to a Winthrop University poll. By April – about the time Graham was emerging as one of the architects of a controversial immigration-reform bill – Graham’s approval rating had dropped to 57 percent.

This past weekend, a group of conservatives met in Columbia, trying to come up with a plan to defeat Graham in the GOP primary, according to a Patch.com report.

“I expect them to mount a challenge, and I expect to fight back and push back,” Graham said Monday. “I feel good about my re-election.”

That could be because Graham last week reported he had raised $1.4 million in the latest quarter, leaving him with $6.25 million available to spend – the most he ever has had, according to his campaign.

Some of Graham’s supporters acknowledge the biggest threat to the incumbent could come in the GOP primary, when voter turnout is low and the electorate is more conservative.

“The notion that Lindsey is invincible because he’s got $6 million in the bank and he’s going to scare off would-be potential opponents with a big bank account – when these third-party special interest guys get involved, that playing field becomes level pretty quick,” said Walter Whetsell, a Republican political consultant who works for West Main Street Values Fund, a pro-Graham super-PAC.

Graham spoke to several hundred people Monday morning at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, remembering the 60th anniversary of the armistice at the end of the Korean War. There, he worried the United States was “making the same mistakes today that we did right after World War II,” thinking “the threats are behind us and we dismantle our military.” Specifically, he criticized sequestration, the automatic federal budget cuts that have cut military spending.

Later, before the Rotary Club, Graham criticized President Obama’s health-care law, advocated for keeping the filibuster in the Senate and pushed for immigration reform.

“I’m pretty darn consistent about wanting to solve hard problems,” Graham told reporters before his Rotary speech. “Immigration reform is pretty controversial. So when I do ask someone to vote for immigration reform, I can tell them, ‘I’m up for re-election next year. I’m not asking more of you that I’m not asking for myself.’”

Several candidates have been rumored to weighing challenges Graham in the GOP primary, including Nancy Mace, the first woman to graduate from The Citadel, who now owns a Charleston public relations firm. Thus far, however, only one Republican officially has declared his candidacy: Richard Cash, who ran unsuccessfully for S.C.’s 3rd District congressional seat in 2010.

“Sen. Graham has antagonized a lot of people by voting for judicial activists like (Supreme Court Associate Justices Sonia) Sotomayor and (Elena) Kagan,” Cash said Monday. “He was the only Republican on the (Senate) Judiciary Committee to vote for either one of those nominees. A lot of people remember that.”

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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