Election 2014

Senate challengers need help to battle Lindsey Graham's war chest

jself@thestate.comOctober 17, 2013 

Sen. Lindsey Graham on left. From top on right: Richard Cash, Nancy Mace, state Sen. Lee Bright

THE STATE

The upstart Republican challengers to U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham will need a lot more cash and a boost from outside groups to have a chance at toppling the well-funded incumbent in June’s GOP primary, political analysts say.

And a huge primary turnout by the party’s most conservative activists would help, too.

Graham had almost $7 million in cash on hand at the end of September.

That is 17 times the $443,304 that Graham’s three announced GOP challengers — state Sen. Lee Bright of Spartanburg, businessman Richard Cash of Easley and Nancy Mace of Charleston — combined have to spend.

That is a huge advantage for any challenger to overcome, said Dave Woodard, a Clemson University pollster and GOP political consultant. “Money is the mother’s milk of politics, and Lindsey Graham owns the dairy.”

The fund-raising numbers for the July-to-September quarter in the U.S. Senate race give the first insights into whether Graham’s challengers — who have created a lot of buzz claiming the two-term senator is vulnerable — have a chance of competing with him.

And those numbers, political observers say, show just how disadvantaged Graham’s challengers are.

“We’re not talking about a lot of money raised by the challengers,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

“That would be OK for a (U.S.) House race” but not a U.S. Senate race, Kondik said of the fundraising totals for Bright, Cash and Mace.

However, outside groups could change that outlook by pouring money into the campaign, even if they enter the race late, he added.

Graham’s challengers — vying to capitalize on anti-Graham sentiment among some Republicans — say they are not discouraged.

“We don’t have to match (Graham) dollar for dollar,” said Bright, after receiving an endorsement from the Republican Liberty Caucus at the State House Wednesday.

Bright, who has raised $102,329 and has $73,900 to spend, said he hopes to raise $200,000 in the next quarter. Building an in-state network of supporters will attract national donors, he predicted.

Charleston’s Nancy Mace, who led Graham’s challengers in fundraising during the most recent quarter, acknowledged she is “going to have to raise more money in order to be viable.”

Mace raised $158,403 from more than 2,000 individual donors during the quarter and has $134,404 to spend. The number of supporters was encouraging, she said.

“These are living-room dollars,” she said. “I don’t think anyone else in this race is receiving the kind of support and momentum that we have right now.”

Easley businessman Richard Cash, a former congressional candidate, raised $14,680 and has $235,000 on hand.

Admitting his fund-raising was slow during the quarter, Cash said another factor, beyond money, also is in play — Graham’s low approval numbers among some conservative S.C. Republicans activists.

“At some point ... it doesn’t matter how many millions (Graham) has,” Cash said. “A third of the voters are not going to vote for him” — a “liability” Graham will not be able to overcome, the Easley businessman predicted.

S.C.’s quirky primary voters

Graham’s approval rating among S.C. Republican voters does show he may be vulnerable, said Mark Tompkins, a University of South Carolina political science professor.

Among S.C. GOP voters responding to a recent Clemson University poll, 53 percent approved of Graham while more than a third did not. But Graham has plenty of time to correct that rating and plenty of money to do it with, Tompkins said.

For Graham’s challengers, however, “their chances (of winning) are diminishing,” he said.

Graham’s campaign may have employed smart strategy in posting big fund-raising numbers early, he added.

“An incumbent raises money early to try to scare everybody off,” he said. “He’s sent a message” to challengers and their donors that “anybody who gives money to anybody (other than Graham) might be giving to somebody who doesn’t stand a chance.”

Clemson’s Woodard said the race is “no contest” — except for the unpredictable nature of S.C. primaries, where the candidate with the most money does not always win.

“It’s not a done deal for Lindsey Graham just because of the nature of the electorate in a primary,” where party activists, who make up a smaller percentage of Republican voters, tend to cast more ballots, said Woodard. “South Carolina has a history of not going along.”

In 2010, for example, Nikki Haley of Lexington won the GOP primary for governor despite being a financial underdog. Meanwhile, two years later, GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney poured money into the state and did not win, Woodard noted. Instead, S.C. GOP voters chose political pundit and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Party activists typically vote in primaries, Woodward said. “They’re kind of quirky.”

Attracting national interest

“The great equalizer” also could help challengers “narrow Graham’s edge,” said Kondik, with the Center for Politics.

“If one of these challengers actually catches fire, the super PACS can support that person,” Kondik said. “If Graham is to be in any trouble at all, one of these candidates is going to have to come forward and start doing well.”

“They will not do it themselves,” Kondik added, “because they don’t have the money.”

Cash downplayed the significance of that super PAC spending, saying outside groups likely will buy ads in the race both for and against Graham.

Bright, however, said that support from national groups would be critical for his success, noting his 100 percent rating from the S.C. Club for Growth, an organization with state and national arms that ranks lawmakers.

Whether the challengers attract any super PAC money depends, in part, on how much those groups dislike Graham and whether they see a frontrunner among his three challengers, Kondik said, adding the groups have several months to figure that out.

But Tompkins and Woodard questioned whether outside groups would get involved. Doing so would require proof that Graham is vulnerable, Tompkins said.

“That’s the story (the challengers) want to sell,” the USC political scientist said. “But (Graham) has a story now too, and his story is ‘I’m $7 million ahead.’ ”

Election 2014: The U.S. Senate

A look at the fund-raising totals for incumbent Republican Lindsey Graham and his GOP primary challengers

Reach Self at (803) 771-8658.

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