COLUMBIA, SC — Possible 2016 Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee wants everyone in South Carolina to know that he likes Lindsey Graham – but he has not endorsed him.
That distinction was made clear Thursday night, the day after former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee publicly thanked Graham in a TV ad that aired during the Capital One Bowl, where much of the state was watching the USC football team defeat Wisconsin.
The ad was paid for by the S.C. Conservative Action Alliance, led by former S.C. House Speaker David Wilkins, R-Greenville. In it, Huckabee said fellow Republican Graham of Seneca is a leader who “knows what it takes to win” against “radical Islam,” calling him a “conservative champion for peace through strength.”
After some national media interpreted the ad as an endorsement, Huckabee posted to his website Thursday night: “To be clear, I haven’t endorsed Lindsey Graham for Senate.”
“Obviously, Senator Graham’s people are using the ‘Thank you’ ad and treating it like an endorsement, but neither the PAC nor I personally have endorsed in the South Carolina Senate race,” Huckabee wrote. “Please help me by sharing this statement with your friends across South Carolina so voters understand where I stand.”
Huckabee added he “will certainly help out in the general election if asked.”
Wilkins agreed the ad was not an endorsement. “We (the Action Alliance) don’t endorse candidates, and we don’t get involved in elections per se,” he said.
This is not the first time a prominent politician has stopped just short of endorsing Graham, who is running for re-election against four Republican challengers in the June primary.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley of Lexington praised Graham in November but stopped short of endorsing him. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-Charleston, also on the 2014 ballot, has declined formally to endorse Graham.
Withholding a formal endorsement is not a slight against Graham but a smart political move, according to Winthrop University political science professor Scott Huffmon.
“You just can’t annoy any part of your base,” Huffmon said. “It’s really about preserving constituencies or at least giving them enough of a lifeline so they can hang on to you.”
Huckabee finished second in South Carolina’s 2008 Republican presidential primary, winning almost 30 percent of the vote, trailing eventual GOP nominee John McCain’s 33 percent. Huckabee, an ordained minister who now hosts a talk show on Fox News, sat out the 2012 presidential race. A recent poll from Gravis Marketing showed more S.C. Republican primary voters preferred Huckabee over potential candidates Chris Christie, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.
While Graham has a hefty lead in the fundraising race, he is having to push back against a revolt from the GOP’s Tea Party-libertarian wing. For example, last month the Greenville County Republican Party’s executive committee passed a resolution calling for Graham to be replaced.
So far, Jay Stamper is the only Democrat to announce his candidacy for Graham’s seat.
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.