COLUMBIA — U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s Republican primary challengers say they are stark alternatives to the two-term incumbent from Seneca.
Graham is too moderate, too willing to compromise or work with congressional Democrats, they say.
But are the policies that the insurgents propose really that different?
On some issues, they are. On other issues, however, the differences are less substantial.
For example, Graham’s opponents uniformly oppose his votes to confirm President Barack Obama’s U.S. Supreme Court nominees. Elections have consequences, Graham said at the time, and Obama, who was elected and then re-elected, has the right to nominate justices.
Graham’s opponents also oppose the incumbent’s support of the National Security Agency’s amassing of U.S. citizens’ cellphone data and his snubbing of a GOP-Tea Party effort to dismantle the president’s signature health care overhaul, a maneuver that led to a 16-day partial shutdown of the federal government.
But Graham’s June primary challengers are less uniform in their opposition to the incumbent’s positions on budgeting, health care, immigration and foreign policy. In those areas, they criticize specific actions Graham has taken, rather than rejecting all of his proposals or actions wholesale.
As of Friday, six Republicans had filed to run against Graham: Columbia pastor Det Bowers, state Sen. Lee Bright of Spartanburg, Easley businessman Richard Cash, Orangeburg attorney Bill Connor, Columbia attorney Benjamin Dunn and Charleston public relations executive Nancy Mace. Two Democrats also have filed for the seat: state Sen. Brad Hutto of Orangeburg and Columbia businessman Jay Stamper.
Graham’s GOP opponents frequently criticize the two-term senator’s willingness to work with Democrats to find consensus on issues and, at times, to criticize his own party.
On immigration, Graham’s challengers all oppose the senator’s support for a “pathway to citizenship” for illegal immigrants, saying it would lead to amnesty. But, like Graham, they generally would push to make stronger border security a top priority. They also are supportive of ideas for tracking and regulating the flow of immigrants into the country, similar to positions Graham has backed in as part of the Senate’s sweeping immigration reform proposal.
On federal budget matters, Graham’s challengers are supportive of S.C. projects, including using federal money to deepen the port of Charleston, a position that Graham shares. Some of Graham’s GOP challengers support a federal project to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium at the Savannah River Site, a project that Graham also backs. Others have questions about the project’s multi-billion-dollar cost overruns.
On national defense, Graham’s stature on Senate committees overseeing defense and spending abroad has made him a prominent voice in shaping U.S. foreign policy.
Some of Graham’s challengers, including those with military experience, express a willingness, similar to Graham, to promote a strong U.S. military abroad. But they disagree with some of Graham’s decisions, including his role in engaging Islamic groups in diplomacy in Egypt and Syria.
Others view the senator – and by extension U.S. foreign policy – as too eager to engage in unnecessary military conflict abroad that, they argue, has little impact on the nation’s interests.
‘If you’re principled . . . take a stand’
Graham and his challengers all say they support repealing President Obama’s signature health care reform law, the Affordable Care Act. But Graham’s challengers question the senator’s commitment to that fight, citing his vocal opposition to a Tea-Party backed strategy to force Democrats to delay or block the law. That strategy led to last fall’s partial shutdown of the federal government.
Graham opposed the Affordable Care Act as a bill and has cosponsored legislation to block the law or allow states to opt-out.
But Graham was wrong, his primary opponents say, to vote to end a filibuster on a federal spending plan last year. Led by Tea Party hero U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that filibuster was aimed at blocking the health care law in exchange for keeping the federal government in operation.
Graham warned his Senate colleagues the shutdown would not work and would make enemies for the GOP if federal paychecks to defense and intelligence workers stopped flowing. After the shutdown started, Graham lambasted Cruz and other Republicans for the strategy. Thinking the president would dismantle his signature legislation was a miscalculation that led to Republicans being blamed for the shutdown, he said.
Graham was not the only Senate conservative who said the shutdown was an ill-conceived attempt to fight Obamacare. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., another Tea Party favorite and a probable candidate for the GOP nomination for president in 2016, said on Fox News that the shutdown was a “dumb idea,” even though he participated in the strategy.
U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said a shutdown could not stop the federal health care law because its funding was largely tied to mandatory, automatic spending, not the federal budget, a position Graham also holds.
But Graham’s June challengers all said the government shutdown, though unfortunate, was worthwhile.
“If you’re principled, then you have to take a stand, and this was a stand worth taking,” Charleston’s Mace said.
Dunn, a Columbia attorney and the most recent newcomer to the race against Graham, said he was torn on the shutdown strategy. He said he did not mind that Congress and “executive-level folks” went without pay. But, he added, “it does really bother me” that the shutdown impacted “lower-level (federal) employees,” like workers at Fort Jackson.
Ultimately, Dunn said he does not “mind occasional shutdowns,” if temporary. “It is a reminder that the federal government does not make this country work,” he said.
Bowers, the Columbia pastor, likened the choice to traveling on a train and seeing that the bridge is out. The option, he said, is between dying when the train derails or jerking the train onto another track and getting “bruised up. We get to a place in our lives when we need to do what is right even if in the meantime it is difficult,” he said.
Not without a warrant
Graham’s opponents also are unified in opposing a National Security Agency surveillance program that tracks U.S. citizens’ cellphone records. They say the program amounts to warrantless spying that violates citizens’ constitutional rights by denying them due process.
“If there is a clear and present danger to freedom, the last thing we want to do is give up our freedom,” Bowers said. Government agencies “have proven their untrustworthiness, so the last thing we would ever do is give them an expanded rule in our lives.”
Orangeburg’s Connor called Graham’s support of the program “absolutely beyond the pale, out of control.”
In a February interview with The State, Graham justified the program as a matter of national security.
“If we’d had the NSA program, there would have never been (the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States),” he said. “When the NSA program gets off track, let’s put it back on track. But when the terrorists are calling into the United States, I want to know what they’re up to.”
The NSA program did not capture the content of phone calls, which would require a warrant to review, Graham said. But, he added, more South Carolinians are worried about being attacked by radical Islamists than are worried about their “emails and their phone conversations being listened to by the government.”
A constitutional debate
Graham’s opponents also say they would have opposed President Obama’s nomination of “activist judges” to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Columbia attorney Dunn said the decision whether to support a Supreme Court nominee “absolutely comes down to what decisions they might make.”
Cash, an abortion activist and opponent of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe versus Wade that struck down states’ abortion bans, said he only would vote for Supreme Court nominees committed to upholding a strict reading of the Constitution.
But when he voted to confirm Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan in 2010, Graham said the Founding Fathers’ interpretation of the Constitution guided him.
The Senate’s role in approving the president’s court nominees is limited to ensuring those candidates are qualified and free of conflicts of interest. Graham’s role, he said, was not to replace the president’s judgment with his own. It was to “(protect) the independence of the judiciary ... making sure that hard-fought elections have meaning.”
Kagan was not someone he would have chosen for the Supreme Court, but she was qualified to serve, Graham said. Graham made a similar argument in 2009 when he supported Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.
‘Peace through strength’
On foreign-policy issues, Graham’s challengers range from sharing his advocacy of a robust U.S. military that promotes Ronald Reagan’s philosophy of “peace through strength” to criticizing his willingness to enter foreign conflicts.
A retired U.S. Air Force attorney and colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, Graham is on Senate committees overseeing defense and appropriations for overseas operations. He frequently travels to conflict zones.
Connor and Dunn, who both served military tours in Afghanistan, agree with Graham that the United States must maintain a strong military presence abroad. Both back U.S. support for Ukraine, for example.
However, Connor, Dunn and Graham’s other challengers criticize the senator for his role in encouraging the Egyptian military to release members of the Muslim Brotherhood last year. Graham had traveled to Egypt with U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at President Obama’s request. Their goal was to bring the warring Egyptian military and Muslim Brotherhood together to end violence in that country.
A lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves and Afghanistan war veteran with 23 years as an airborne infantryman, Connor said that move, followed by Graham blocking aide to the Egyptian military, was shortsighted.
“I know Egypt,” said Connor, who has been on a peacekeeping mission to that country and has Christian Egyptian relatives. “The military has been the moderating force,” keeping peace with Israelis and “clamps on the Muslim Brotherhood” who are “our enemies.”
Graham’s critics also say he was wrong to push for limited U.S. airstrikes against Syria and to want to train some rebel groups, groups that have ties to radical Islamists, according to his challengers.
Mace, the first woman to graduate from the Citadel, said she would not have pushed for U.S. intervention in Syria. Her approach would have been to stay out of that country’s conflict entirely. “There were no good choices” between a “murderous regime” and rebels backed by radical Islamists, she said.
Cash said Graham is “too interventionist in his foreign policy and seems a little too eager for America to get militarily involved” in conflicts abroad that he says lie outside U.S. national interests.
Cash, who runs a used-car business and a fleet of ice-cream trucks, said Graham’s call for limited airstrikes on Syria “to tip the balance of power” in favor of rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad would have led to the need for troops on the ground, despite Graham’s claims otherwise.
If Assad fell, the responsibility of rebuilding Syria would fall to the United States, Cash said.
But Cash’s biggest gripe against Graham concerning Syria was the senator’s position advocating that Obama should strike Syria even if Congress did not approve the intervention. “That was poor judgment and an unbalanced view of the Constitution,” Cash said. “Syria had not attacked us, American forces or American citizens.”
Bright also says U.S. involvement abroad should be limited. Boosting U.S. energy production at home could reduce the need for a global U.S. military presence, he said.
Asked how the United States should react to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Bright said, “I would be trying to get a permit” to drill for natural gas in South Carolina.
‘Got to have a budget’
Graham voted for a recent federal budget deal that only three S.C. congressional members opposed, including U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, both Charleston Republicans. The opposition of the S.C. Republicans to the budget deal was criticized by a Charleston port leader, who said a vote against the budget was a vote against getting federal money to deepen the port, needed to support the state’s economy.
Despite disliking aspects of the budget, Graham voted for it, in keeping with his reputation as a Washington dealmaker.
“You can always find something in a big bill like that to vote against,” Graham told The State in February. “But, eventually, you’ve got to have a budget. You’ve got to fund the government or ports do die. ... I’m in the camp of ‘Get the best deal possible, and what you can’t get today, you go after tomorrow.’ ”
Mace, Graham’s Charleston challenger, said she also would support federal money to deepen the Charleston harbor.
Asked how she would go about securing money for the port project, Mace said she would “like to see an up-or- down vote” in Congress on the harbor deepening and similar projects. Asked if she would make a deal with a lawmaker from another state to exchange support for projects like the port, Mace said she avoids answering hypothetical questions.
Then, she turned the conversation toward criticizing Graham for being known as a dealmaker. “Where have those deals gotten us?” Mace asked. The result has been debt and deficits, earmarks and “bloated” budgets, she said.
Graham, who has the backing of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, has been a consistent opponent to defense cuts, important in a state with a huge military presence, and a promoter of state projects, including the port.
When the Obama administration said it would place on “cold standby” a S.C. project to turn weapons-grade plutonium into fuel, Graham and other state leaders jumped to the project’s defense.
The Savannah River Site project is 60 percent complete and employs about 1,800 people. But it has reported billions of dollars in cost overruns and has no customers after utility companies backed out of plans to buy the fuel, when produced.
State leaders say the project must continue as part of a treaty with Russia to dispose of millions of metric tons of plutonium. But Energy Department officials said they are exploring other options.
Graham’s challengers are divided on the issue. Some said they needed more information to weigh in on the project. Others said they support of the project or the treaty required its continuation.
Bright was the most hesitant to support the project, which he said does not “seem to be a sustainable plan.” But, he added, the nation’s commitment to disposing of plutonium would come first in his decision making.
Dunn, the Columbia attorney, said, “If we’re going to shut the thing down, the right thing is to do something else with it (the plutonium) in South Carolina,” preserving state jobs.
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