You know it’s an unusual election year when both of South Carolina’s U.S. senators find themselves bumping into each other on the campaign trail.
Normally, a state’s two senators wouldn’t be in campaign mode at the same time.
But they are this year in South Carolina because Sen. Tim Scott was appointed to the job last year by Gov. Nikki Haley after former Sen. Jim DeMint resigned part of the way into his second term.
That leaves Scott facing voters for the first time as a senator this November at the same time Graham is angling for a third term.
So it was that both were at the Embassy Suites in Greenville on Thursday night, courting voters at the Greater Greer Chamber of Commerce’s 76th annual celebration.
They also appeared together in Greenville in November to help dedicate a new Veterans Administration clinic off Grove Road.
But while they sometimes work the rooms together, they are running on different records.
They are both Republicans, but they have come to different conclusions on some of the biggest questions that have come before the Senate since Scott joined the chamber a little more than a year ago.
For example, Graham voted for the debt deal that ended the partial government shutdown in October, while Scott voted against it amid tea party demands to “defund Obamacare,” President Obama’s health care law, as the price for raising the nation’s debt ceiling again.
Earlier this month, Graham voted for a $1.1 trillion spending compromise, even though it cut 1 percent from the cost-of-living adjustment for military retirees — an issue he had complained about bitterly on conservative talk radio and in front of a veterans group.
Scott voted against the appropriations bill hammered out by Republican and Democratic negotiators, even though it contained funding to deepen the Port of Charleston, which many say is critical for the future of economic development in South Carolina.
Their differing votes come against the backdrop of a Republican Party riven by faction, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce backing so-called “establishment” candidates such as Graham in primary battles, and other groups such as the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund bankrolling tea party favorites such as Scott.
Asked about his vote on the spending compromise, Graham said he ended up backing the measure after cost-of-living adjustments for disabled veterans and surviving spouses were restored. He also said he didn’t want to shut down the government again.
“I’m a practical guy,” Graham said. “We needed to run the government. The shutdown cost us $26 billion and almost killed the Republican Party.”
Graham added that the bill “took care of the Port of Charleston and the Savannah River Site,” a Department of Energy facility near Aiken.
Scott said his explanation for voting against the appropriations bill was “easy.”
“They gave me three days to read 1,600 pages, $1.1 trillion in spending,” Scott said. “If you can’t read it, you don’t vote for it.”
Asked if he and Graham were canceling out one another’s votes, Scott said, “I think what I’m doing is voting for what I think is in the best interest of our constituents.”
Former Obama campaign aide and U.S. Commerce Department official Rick Wade, one of two Democrats seeking their party’s nod to run against Scott, would have voted in favor of both bills, said James Allen, a spokesman for Wade’s campaign.
The other Democrat hoping to unseat Scott, Richland County Councilwoman Joyce Dickerson, couldn’t be reached.
Four Republicans challenging Graham for the GOP nomination all said that, like Scott, they would have voted against the debt deal that ended the partial government shutdown and the spending compromise that funded port deepening.
“Federal spending is absolutely out of control and it’s crippling our nation,” said state Sen. Lee Bright of Roebuck, one of Graham’s opponents.
Powdersville businessman Richard Cash, another Republican running against Graham, said the difference in the two senators’ voting records “reflect a fundamental difference between a conservative reformist philosophy held by people like Sen. Scott and Sen. DeMint as opposed to the business-as-usual philosophy that’s held by Sen. Graham.”
Charleston marketing consultant Nancy Mace, also challenging Graham, said Washington is “out of touch with everyday, hard-working Americans.”
“What we need more than ever is strong, conservative leadership to step up,” Mace said.
Orangeburg attorney and Afghanistan war veteran Bill Connor, also hoping to replace Graham, said he lost his pay as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves for one month as a result of the government shutdown.
But Connor said he nevertheless would have voted against the debt deal that ended the shutdown because he wanted to keep the pressure up to defund Obamacare, which he believes is unconstitutional.
Connor said he would have voted against the spending bill earlier this month as well because he wants to tackle the nation’s enormous debt “and that doesn’t happen by increasing spending by $26 billion more.”