Graham’s primary challenge race is fight for the soul of the SC GOP

jself@thestate.comNovember 16, 2013 

— U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham is a “stalwart” Republican – pro-life and the proud owner of an AR-15 who frequently zings President Barack Obama for his health care law and his handling of a deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, supporters say.

But Graham’s record has drawn four GOP primary opponents, and the ire of Tea Party and libertarian activists, who bristled when the two-term senator from Seneca rebuked fellow congressional Republicans for refusing to fund the government unless Obama delayed or defunded his health care law.

Graham’s challengers in June’s Republican primary preach that South Carolina’s senior senator is out of step with Palmetto State Republicans, citing his support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, defense of a federal domestic surveillance program, outspoken advocacy of an interventionist foreign policy and, at times, willingness to side with Obama.

As evidence that Graham has fallen out of favor, those opponents – state Sen. Lee Bright of Spartanburg, Easley businessman Richard Cash, Orangeburg attorney Bill Connor, and Charleston PR executive Nancy Mace – point to Graham’s approval rating in recent polls, below 50 percent among Republicans and even lower among all S.C. voters.

It’s an unusual place for the senior U.S. senator from South Carolina – a state with a history of venerating seniority – to find himself.

To ward off his underfunded opponents, Graham has $7 million in cash and the support of much of the state’s business community. The veteran politician also has been angling toward the right, pushing positions that appeal to the state’s social conservatives and anti-Obama voters. As to the polls, the Graham camp says its numbers show the incumbent’s support is solid – at roughly 60 percent.

But will those advantages be enough?

The goal of Graham’s opponents – who combined hold one elected office – is to hold Graham’s primary support to below 50 percent, forcing a runoff where the surviving challenger could hope to win the smaller electorate, made up largely of diehard Republican voters.

The result of the primary – a fight for the soul of the S.C. GOP, pitting the state’s Republican establishment against Tea Party libertarians – could reverberate beyond the Palmetto State. Already, Republican White House hopefuls in 2016 are visiting the state, testing out their brands of conservatism ahead of South Carolina’s first-in-the-South presidential primary.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – who easily won re-election earlier this month, making him an early 2016 favorite of the GOP mainstream – has said he wants to help Graham. Meanwhile, Graham’s challengers tout their affinity for GOP firebrands Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, U.S. senators who have made multiple visits to South Carolina this year in advance of the 2016 race.

Bright, who frequently aligns himself with Tea Party heroes Cruz and Paul, is hoping for significant backing from their financial networks. An endorsement from the Republican Liberty Caucus is a big start, he says.

That help could make a big difference if Graham’s challengers can force him into a runoff, allowing anti-incumbent voters to unify behind one challenger.

Bright should know.

In 2008, the Spartanburg libertarian placed second in a three-way GOP primary for state Senate. But he won the runoff. “The incumbent is going to get all his votes on the first ballot,” Bright said.

Waiting on game changers

While ready for a “spirited campaign,” Graham has no reason to worry, his supporters say.

He has $7 million to spend, the backing of national political heavyweights including President George W. Bush and former U.S. Cabinet secretaries, super PACs waiting in the wings to provide even more financial support if needed, and easy access to the bully pulpit of Sunday talk shows and the daily news cycle.

With less than $500,000 combined to spend thus far and little or no experience in statewide politics, Graham’s opponents will need help if they are going to have an impact, political analysts agree.

A limited-government PAC or a group – like Cruz’s Senate Conservative Fund, which backs GOP challengers – could increase the chances of Graham’s opponents by dumping a load of cash into the race.

Thus far, however, those groups have yet to weigh in.

The national Club for Growth, whose S.C. chapter gave Bright a 100 percent rating, is eyeing the S.C. race. FreedomWorks, a pro-liberty grass-roots organization, also has criticized Graham but has not endorsed any of his opponents.

Others are watching the contest warily as well but have not yet decided whether to play a role.

How much support Graham will get from the state’s highest-ranking GOP leaders – including its Republican congressman, some who have been encouraged to run against him – is unclear.

Should one of those congressmen – three elected in 2010’s Tea Party wave – jump into the race, they could garner immediate support. But, thus far, they have shied away from the race.

Falling poll numbers

Recent polls show Graham’s popularity declining.

Graham’s approval among self-identified S.C. Republicans dropped to 45 percent in an October Winthrop Poll, down from 72 percent in February. Among registered voters, Graham’s approval rating slipped seven points to 37 percent.

Another October poll, done by Harper Polling for Conservative Intelligence Briefing, also found Graham’s favorability among likely voters at 37 percent.

But when asked who they would support, 51 percent of likely GOP primary voters told Harper they would vote for Graham. Fifteen percent said Bright. Cash, Connor and Mace each had 4 percent support.

A poll this far before the election – seven months from the June primary – is not reliable for predicting its outcome, some political analysts insist.

Richard Quinn – a longtime S.C. political consultant and pollster, including for Graham – said Graham’s favorability rating among active S.C. primary voters stays around 60 percent, according to the incumbent’s internal polling.

“That’s pretty consistent,” Quinn said, adding Graham’s numbers were lower in 2008, when Graham beat GOP challenger Buddy Witherspoon, winning 67 percent of the GOP primary vote in the face of similar accusations of being too moderate.

‘Coincidences are stunning rare’

Graham’s challengers are pushing their message that Graham is a center-leaner who concedes too quickly on important Republican causes, then jumps behind conservative causes only as primary season nears.

Most recently, Graham criticized the GOP strategy, championed by Cruz, of demanding that Obama dismantle his signature health care law in exchange for keeping the federal government open. When Obama refused to budge, a 16-day partial shutdown of many federal agencies resulted.

Graham, who called Cruz’s strategy a “poor tactical decision,” was the only S.C. Republican in the House or Senate to support a deal to end the shutdown, joining only U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat, in the S.C. delegation in voting for that deal.

In criticizing the GOP, which the public blamed overwhelmingly for the shutdown, Graham was “pandering to the Washington establishment class,” said Connor, an Army veteran who announced he will run against Graham on Veterans Day.

Recently, in a move that Graham’s challengers say was meant to win back Republican support, Graham introduced a Senate bill banning abortions after 20 weeks. His challengers dismiss the move as a disingenuous attempt to appeal to social conservatives.

“I’m always grateful when people are willing to discuss the killing of the unborn in this nation and the seriousness of that. That’s a positive,” said Cash, an Easley businessman who spent several years running a pro-life ministry, adding he would “be a leader” on the abortion issue.

“In that regard,” he added, “it’s not going to take me 19 years to speak and stand up.”

“I don’t think anyone is surprised that Senator Graham is trying to market his conservative credentials this close to an election,” said Mace, a Charleston public relations executive.

Bright agrees, saying Graham had a chance earlier to make a real impact by fighting Obama’s nominations of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, instead of voting for them.

In response, the Graham campaign touts the senator’s 100 percent rating with the National Right to Life, noting he authored the Unborn Victims of Violence Act in 2004. That law allows for separate federal charges against assailants who injure or kill unborn children during crimes perpetrated against their mothers.

“Lindsey Graham is not suddenly pro-life,” said Marilyn Musgrave, a former Republican congresswoman from Colorado who now is vice president of government affairs for the Susan B. Anthony List. That group’s top legislative priority is Graham’s new abortion bill, called the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.

Graham would not have been elected to the Upstate congressional seat that he held, before being elected to the Senate, unless he was pro-life, added Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political scientist and pollster.

“The fact that he decided right now was the time to be pro-active on his stance rather than reactive – maybe there’s something to that,” Huffmon added. “Coincidences in politics are stunningly rare.”

A deep bench

Aiding Graham is a base of support from political heavyweights – on the state and national level.

President George W. Bush and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson have contributed to Graham’s campaign.

Last week, the S.C. Chamber of Commerce named Graham its 2013 “Public Servant of the Year,” citing his support of the business community and advocacy of the military. The chamber highlighted Graham’s role in winning federal help to deepen the port of Charleston – a project derided a “pork” by some – and his defense of aircraft manufacturer Boeing against a challenge from the National Labor Relations Board.

Boeing has returned that support, donating $25,000 to the West Main Street Values Fund, a political action committee launched by former S.C. GOP chairman Katon Dawson to support Graham’s re-election efforts.

‘80 percent agreement . . . a good thing’

While derided by his opponents, Graham’s campaign describes the senator’s leadership approach as having the potential to unify the fractured GOP.

Graham is a “Ronald Reagan conservative” with a high approval ratings among conservative organizations, including pro-life and pro-gun groups, said campaign spokesman Tate Zeigler.

Graham’s record includes a 92 percent approval rating from the American Conservative Union, which bills itself as the oldest grass-roots conservative organization in the nation, his campaign also noted.

Courting mainstream Republican also is part of the Graham campaign’s strategy.

After winning election to a second term this month, New Jersey Gov. Christie, a potentially divisive White House hopeful among S.C. primary voters, told The New York Times that he wants to help Graham win in South Carolina.

The Graham campaign says it has not heard from Christie, who has shown the ability to appeal to voters in New Jersey that the GOP struggles nationally to attract.

“Sen. Graham has nothing but great respect for Gov. Christie and his ability to win in a ‘blue state,’ ” Zeigler said. “Just like Ronald Reagan, Sen. Graham seeks to build a winning coalition of people from all corners of the country around the proposition that 80 percent agreement is a good thing.

“The only beneficiaries of Republican infighting are Democrats and President Obama.”

The GOP Senate primary

The underdogs’ strategy

The winning strategy for U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s four GOP primary opponents requires pushing the state’s senior senator into a Republican runoff in late June. Traditionally, fewer votes are cast in runoffs, where often only the most motivated party activists vote.

The goal is to push the combined anti-Graham vote in the June primary to more than 50 percent, forcing a runoff, said Scott Huffmon, director of the Winthrop Poll. Then, GOP voters would have to return to the polls again.

Having won the 2008 GOP primary with 67 percent of the vote, Graham is not worried about the prospect of a runoff, said spokesman Tate Zeigler. “Senator Graham enjoys wide and deep support from South Carolina Republican primary voters.”

Graham, his opponents at the polls

Only one of Graham’s four GOP Senate primary opponents – Bill Connor of Orangeburg – ever has run for statewide office before.

Connor ran for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor in 2010. While he lost in a runoff to Ken Ard, Connor said that statewide experience will give him an advantage in the June primary.

Graham won his most recent GOP primary – in 2008 – by taking 187,736 votes, or 67 percent of those cast, to beat Buddy Witherspoon, who tallied 93,125 votes.

In contrast to Graham’s 2008 GOP primary tally:

•  Connor took 107,731 votes, or 27 percent of the votes cast, in his 2010 GOP primary against Ard, who took 132,602 votes, or 34 percent. Connor lost their runoff, taking 130,997 votes to Ard’s 207,804.

•  Richard Cash placed first in the 2010 GOP primary for the 3rd District U.S. House seat, taking 20,923 votes in a six-candidate field. However, Cash lost the GOP runoff to Jeff Duncan by 2,000 votes, 37,352 to 35,185. (Duncan went on to win the general election.)

•  State Sen. Lee Bright won the 2012 GOP primary for his Spartanburg state Senate seat most recently in 2012, taking 4,144 votes.

Graham’s fourth challenger, Nancy Mace, never has run for political office before.

The Senate race, according to the polls

An October Winthrop Poll found 45 percent of self-identified Republicans supported Graham, down sharply from 72 percent in February.

An October poll, by Harper Polling for Conservative Intelligence Briefing, found Graham’s favorability rating among likely voters was 37 percent.

The Harper poll also asked 379 S.C. likely GOP primary voters which candidate seeking the Senate seat currently held by Graham they would support. Fifty-one percent said Graham, and 15 percent said Bright. Cash, Connor and Mace each had 4 percent support each.

Lindsey Graham’s primary opponents

Lee Bright

Age: 43

Hometown: Spartanburg

Family: Wife Amy, two children.

Career: Business development with BBD LLC. Bright formerly owned and operated a transportation company called On Time Trucking that failed, leaving him with more than $500,000 in debt. Bright attributes his company’s failure to the economic downturn and costs associated with changing regulations.

Education: Dorman High School

Politics: A 2012 Ron Paul for President supporter, Bright is in his second term as a state senator. He previously was a member of the Spartanburg County District 6 school board. Bright, who has been endorsed by the Republican Liberty Caucus, is popular with Tea Party and limited government groups, earning a 100 percent favorability rating with the S.C. Club for Growth.

Bright has driven efforts to expand gun rights, promoting bills to allow concealed weapon permit holders to carry guns into businesses that serve alcohol and to allow anyone to carry firearms in public without permits, concealed or in the open. Bright also has pushed for bills to ban abortion in the state and nullify the federal health-care law called Obamacare.

Richard Cash

Age: 53

Hometown: Easley

Family: Wife Marcia, eight children

Career: Currently owns and operates two businesses – a fleet of ice-cream trucks and a used-car sales business. Cash spent seven years as a pro-life missionary in the Upstate, working as an administrator of a ministry called Pastors for Life. Before that, he was a computer analyst in Greenville.

Education: Studied economics and business at Furman University, received a master’s degree in theology from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston

Politics: Cash ran for the 3rd District congressional seat in 2010, placing first in the GOP primary before losing a runoff to Jeff Duncan.

Bill Connor

Age: 45

Family: Wife Susan, three children

Hometown: Orangeburg

Career: Attorney and partner in Orangeburg’s Horger & Connor law firm; retired 23-year U.S. Army veteran and current lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve

Politics: Former GOP chairman for the 6th District in Congress. Connor ran for lieutenant governor in 2010, making him the only one of Graham’s challengers to have run a statewide campaign before. He lost in the GOP primary runoff to Ken Ard.

Criticizing the involvement of political consultants in state Republican politics, Connor ran as an anti-establishment Tea Party candidate for the chairmanship of the state GOP in 2011. He lost to Chad Connelly.

Education: Graduate of The Citadel and the University of South Carolina School of Law

Nancy Mace

Age: 35

Hometown: Charleston

Family: Husband Curtis, two children

Career: Founder of the Mace Group, a Charleston business consulting firm that has done work for several S.C. Republicans. Among her clients: state Sen. Lee Bright, another Graham primary challenger; U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, while he was in the U.S. House; U.S. Reps. Mick Mulvaney of Indian Land and Tom Rice of Myrtle Beach; and state Sens. Tom Davis of Beaufort, Larry Grooms of Berkeley and Kevin Bryant of Anderson. Mace has faced questions over her ties to the political website FITSNews, which frequently has criticized Gov. Nikki Haley and other politicians. Mace formerly was co-owner of the website.

Education: Mace was the first woman to graduate from The Citadel military college in Charleston. Mace wrote a book about her experience there, called “In the Company of Men: A Woman at The Citadel.” She has a master’s degree in journalism and mass communications from the University of Georgia.

Politics: Has never sought public office. Was a volunteer for Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential run. Mace has been endorsed by the National Tea Party Leadership Fund.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct an error in reporting of Richard Cash's age and the number of candidates in his 2010 primary race.

Reach Self at (803)771-8658

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