COLUMBIA, SC — A gay barb lobbed at U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham by the most unknown of his June Republican primary challengers will not deter a pact of support some of them made Thursday.
Four of the Seneca Republican’s challengers pledged Thursday at the State House to endorse whoever among them makes it into a runoff with Graham – if the pack can hold the two-term incumbent to half the vote.
The news conference announcing the alliance took an unexpected turn when the most minor of Graham’s opponents, Juan “Dave” Feliciano of Spartanburg, showed up, signed the pledge and took to the podium to call Graham “ambiguously gay.”
“It’s about time that South Carolina (says), ‘Hey, we’re tired of the ambiguously gay senator from South Carolina. We’re ready for a new leader to merge the Republican Party,” Feliciano said. “We’re done with this. This is what it’s about, all of us coming together and saying, one way or the other, one of us is going to be on that ballot in November.”
Feliciano, an ex-police officer who says he resigned to run for the Senate, signed the pact with state Sen. Lee Bright of Spartanburg, Easley businessman Richard Cash and Orangeburg attorney Bill Connor before the news conference began.
After the event, Connor renounced Feliciano’s comments as personal attacks and personal opinion, which he did not endorse.
Cash said he believes in free speech, “but I also believe in being civil and respectful. Mr. Feliciano’s comments were inappropriate and I disavow any association with them (the comments).”
However, both Cash and Connor said they would honor the pledge that they signed.
Bright left before Feliciano’s comments, but later said, “He hasn’t said anything that would be contrary to conservative beliefs. He just expressed an opinion.
“But that doesn’t say anything about how he would vote in the U.S. Senate,” Bright added. “Graham has done and said much more offensive things.”
Graham long has been dogged by opponents questioning his sexuality.
In 2001, S.C. Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian said Graham was “a little too light in the loafers” to succeed the state’s longest-serving senator, Strom Thurmond, a notorious womanizer. Harpootlian said he did not know the phrase could be taken as an insult toward homosexuals, but Graham, then an Upstate congressman, said it was intended to slander him.
In the 2002 Senate race, Alex Sanders, Graham’s Democratic opponent, ran campaign ads that emphasized his life as a family man. Graham, who is unmarried and has no children, had his sister appear in an ad.
Last year, Charleston public relations executive Nancy Mace, another of Graham’s June GOP primary opponents, made headlines for re-tweeting a supporter’s comment calling Graham a “Nancy boy.” Mace insisted a staffer, not her, re-tweeted the message. But she took responsibility for the tweet, which was quickly deleted from her campaign account.
Graham has said repeatedly that he is not gay.
Last year, he said he was “disappointed” in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a provision of the Defense of Marriage Act. Graham voted for the law in the U.S. House and, as a senator, wrote a brief to the court urging defense of the law.
“I believe in the traditional definition of marriage. ... I have been a strong supporter of the Defense of Marriage Act,” Graham said in a statement at the time, adding the ruling would not change South Carolina law.
Mace did not attend Thursday’s pledge-signing.
“It would be a disservice to my supporters if I were to ever even think about losing, let alone talk about it,” she said in a statement. “I am in this to win.”
Columbia pastor Det Bowers, who also is seeking the GOP nomination, was meeting with donors Thursday. Bowers declined the invitation because he is “running to win” and had a “lot of ground to cover,” his son Joel Bowers said.
Feliciano’s appearance was a surprise.
As of Thursday morning, only Bright, Cash and Connor had plans to commit to the pledge. But invitations were extended to all of Graham’s announced challengers.
The pledge says: “We, the undersigned genuine conservative Republicans, agree to endorse whichever one of our fellow signers advances to the runoff election against incumbent Senator Lindsey Graham following the South Carolina Republican primary election for the U.S. Senate on the 10th of June 2014.”
Polls suggest a runoff is unlikely.
A recent Winthrop Poll found Graham is favored by 45 percent of S.C. Republicans with 30 percent undecided, meaning the incumbent only needs to pick up one of every six undecided voters to win without a runoff. Only one Graham opponent, Bright, registered above 5 percent.
Also, Graham has $7.6 million in his campaign account to spend, compared with only hundreds of thousands in his opponents’ accounts.
Filing for the U.S. Senate seat opens Sunday, but some of Graham’s opponents have been campaigning for weeks and months.
Feliciano has filed federal paperwork for his campaign account but has not reported fundraising totals yet.
Feliciano’s days on the campaign trail may be numbered. In a statement to media late Thursday, Feliciano said he has not raised much money and does not know how to campaign.
“Most likely my campaign will end at the end of this month, and I will go back to serving the citizens of this amazing state,” he said, chiding the other GOP primary candidates for throwing him “under the bus” and telling them to “man up.”
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