LAKE WYLIE, S.C. — Some of the early shots in the Republican primary battle against Sen. Lindsey Graham have been fired from this tiny community on northern border of the state where the Civil War began.
A small group called Carolina Conservatives United, one of dozens organized loosely under the flag of limited government, low taxes and strict adherence to the Constitution, last week sent out images of a milk carton bearing Graham’s face and asked Gov. Nikki R. Haley to issue the state’s version of an Amber Alert to find its missing senator.
“Lindsey Graham has not been seen in the state of South Carolina for most of the last two years,” said Bruce Carroll, the chairman of the group.
Conservatives in South Carolina are eager to oust Graham, who has enraged the far right for, among other things, reaching across the aisle on immigration and for supporting President Barack Obama’s nominations for the Supreme Court. Tea Partyers called him a community organizer for the Muslim Brotherhood when, instead of heading home for the congressional break in August, he went to Egypt at the request of the president.
But to stand a chance against the politician who succeeded Strom Thurmond in 2003, conservatives will have to win a civil war of their own. At least 40 groups align themselves along Tea Party and Libertarian lines, and trying to unify them to topple the state’s senior senator will be no easy task.
So far, three people have stepped forward to challenge Graham in the June primary: state Sen. Lee Bright; Richard Cash, a former congressional candidate; and Nancy Mace, the first woman to graduate from the Citadel and, at the moment, the challenger whose political star is rising the fastest.
Mace, the owner of a public relations firm in Charleston, prides herself on her social media skills. She has never run for office, but her story is familiar to many here. For a time, she became the face of gender integration when she graduated from the Citadel in 1999, an experience she followed with a 2001 book, “In the Company of Men: A Woman at the Citadel.”
Having had to tough it out at the formerly all-male military college made her a perfect candidate for voters seeking a true conservative, she said.
“I feel like they are looking for someone who is very strong and who won’t waver,” she said in an interview last week.
But she is also the biggest target so far, in part because of her connection to a political gossip website called FitsNews, which Mace helped create in her role as a Web designer and media manager.
Will Folks, once a press secretary for Rep. Mark Sanford and a former political consultant for Haley, runs the site, which consistently attacks the governor. In 2010, Folks claimed to have once had an “inappropriate physical relationship” with Haley two weeks before a highly competitive race for governor.
The claims were never proven, and Haley, who is heading into a campaign for her second term next year, has long said it was just another example of underhanded South Carolina politics.
Suggestions of a connection to the website can quickly throw Mace off message.
“My opponents’ political operatives have started smearing me,” she said. “I’m talking about all of them. It says more about my opponents than it does about me.”
The smears, she said, began in Graham’s camp two months before she announced. The others have joined in.
One is Bright, who endorsed Ron Paul in the state’s presidential primary, and who has used the website connection to attack Mace. He also has been at odds with Haley over ethics reform and strategies to keep Obama’s health care law from being implemented in the state. Bright tends to back extremely conservative legislation and introduced a bill in 2011 to have South Carolina create its own currency if the Federal Reserve system collapsed.
Haley said she was not jumping into the battle over who should replace Graham. Speaking this month at the annual Red State gathering, organized by Erick Erickson, founder of the conservative blog RedState.com, the governor said, “I controlled Tim Scott. We’ll see what you do with the other one.”
She was referring to the former Rep. Tim Scott, a Tea Party favorite whom she appointed this year to the Senate seat vacated by Jim DeMint, who left the Senate to head the Heritage Foundation.
The Senate Conservatives Fund, which DeMint founded in 2008, last week took on Graham for suggesting that a government shutdown as a way to fight the Obama administration’s Affordable Health Care act would be “a bridge too far.”
Cash, a lawyer and a social conservative from Piedmont in the vote-rich upstate region, is considered a sleeper in the race, said David Woodard, a longtime South Carolina political consultant who ran Graham’s congressional campaign in 1994 and wrote the 2006 book “The New Southern Politics.”
“You got to look at their money, and the guy with the most money is Richard Cash,” Woodard said.
According to recent campaign finance records, Cash had about $250,000, including at least $200,000 of his own money. Mace said she raised more than $100,000 in her first two weeks. Bright has not filed any campaign finance papers.
Graham has $6.3 million. Although he declined to comment on his opponents, his campaign staff pointed out that tough opposition in a primary is nothing out of the ordinary in South Carolina.
“Lindsey Graham is a strong fiscal, social and national security conservative with the record to back it up,” said Tate Zeigler, a campaign spokesman.
But Cash is staking out a position as the most anti-abortion, Christian constitutionalist in the race.
He is the certainly the most seasoned campaigner among the challengers, even though his first race was not until 2010, when he was one of six Republicans trying to take an open congressional seat. Although he was not well known, he ran a disciplined campaign that moved him into a runoff against Rep. Jeff Duncan, Woodard said.
In meetings with Tea Party groups, he repeats a carefully honed slogan about his candidacy, which he says is built on three C’s: capitalism, Christianity and the Constitution.
The state’s traditional Republican leaders and political consultants agree that it will take a deeply unified effort to mount a successful campaign against Graham, but that in South Carolina, an unpredictable state with one of the country’s largest numbers of prominent Tea Party politicians, it is not unthinkable.
The key is for one candidate to find a way to harness that power.
“Anybody who wants to look at all those groups with a broad stroke should think again,” said Matt Moore, the chairman of the state’s Republican Party.
Earlier this summer, dozens of conservative groups talked about finding the state’s Ted Cruz - a reference to the senator from Texas whose long-shot, grass-roots victory in 2012 is considered a model among Tea Party supporters.
It remains to be seen whom that should be, said Paul Anderko, president of the GPS Conservatives for Action PAC.
“We know it’s not going to be an easy fight, and people are just listening and waiting to find the right candidate,” Anderko said. “But South Carolina is a funny state. Sometimes incumbents do go down in flames.”