ROCK HILL — Three of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Grahams four June primary challengers appeared together here for the first time Tuesday night, trying to distinguish themselves as the best candidate to topple the two-term Seneca Republican.
State Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, said he is willing to filibuster bills in the name of principles that, he said, are unpopular among Democrats and mainstream Republicans.
Easley businessman Richard Cash said he is an Upstate social conservative with a history of anti-abortion activism who will stand up for the nations religious and constitutional values.
And Orangeburg attorney Bill Connor, a U.S. Army veteran, said he is the only one of Grahams challengers who can go toe-to-toe with the incumbent in the foreign policy arena in Junes GOP primary.
About 60 people came to hear Bright, Cash and Connor speak in a forum in Rock Hill organized by groups GPS Conservatives for Action, a Tea Party and limited-government grass-roots organization based in York County, and the S.C. District 5 Patriots that have pledged to oppose Graham with grass-roots efforts.
Organizers said Charleston public relations executive Nancy Mace, Grahams fourth GOP primary challenger, was invited and initially seemed interested in attending but did not commit. Graham also declined an invitation, organizers said.
They are three good candidates, said Larry Byrd of Fort Mill, after the event.
Their philosophies are basically the same, he said, adding that the anti-Graham forces now would have to see who has the ability to garner support and get the money.
Bright touted himself as the only candidate facing Graham who has held elected office. He said he was one of a small minority of lawmakers to vote against a legislative bill that passed allowing the state to borrow money to begin addressing its $29 billion shortfall in money for road needs. I didnt want the state to go into debt.
We have the money to build these roads, said Bright, who, at one point during the legislative session, recommended cutting the state budget across the board.
Cash transitioned from affable humor, telling jokes often at his own expense, into discussions of his faith and desire to focus, if elected, on fighting what he said is an erosion in American religious culture that led to rulings like the Supreme Courts 1970s Roe v. Wade abortion decision.
As evidence of his commitment, Cash talked about having been arrested for peacefully protesting outside abortion clinics and praying on the sidewalk.
Cash elicited the most laughs of the night during a discussion of the challenges facing Social Security, as more and more baby boomers retire leaving fewer workers to support them. Citing the impact of the low U.S. birth rate, Cash, who has eight children, said, I just want to say Ive done my part.
The candidates also frequently struck similar tones, opposing immigration reforms that Graham has supported and agreeing businesses would have access to more U.S. workers if the unemployed did not abuse the safety-net system.
The United States has gone a long way down the path toward a European welfare state, Cash said. There are an awful lot of people not working, which creates a shortage in the labor pool.
Bright and Connor both commented on Grahams strong support in South Carolinas business community, deriding his recent award from the S.C. Chamber of Commerce for his support of the Charleston port and aircraft manufacturer Boeing, which opened a North Charleston plan in the face of protests from its Washington state labor unions.
Bright cast state legislators as taking their marching orders from big business in South Carolina.
Connor said if elected, he would not say things that are politically correct. One example he gave was his belief that women do not belong in the infantry.
The evening ended with a straw poll of about 59 votes. Organizers did not provide a breakdown of votes.
But Bright won, with Connor coming in second, Cash third and Graham getting one vote, said Swain Sheppard with GPS Conservatives for Action.
No votes were cast for Mace.
Diane Carr, a former York County GOP officer, cast the only vote for Graham in the straw poll.
You can never say never in politics, but theyre not top-tier candidates, Carr said of Grahams opponents.
But, she added, if Republican U.S. Reps. Trey Gowdy of Spartanburg or Mick Mulvaney of Indian Land jump in the race, the outcome of Junes primary could be different. If Im going to replace a senator whos been as effective on the national level scene, its going to be with someone who can at least do as much as or more than Graham.
Bright, Cash and Connor dont have the power, the gravitas, that a candidate would need to win, Carr said.
Reach Self at (803)771-8658