U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham opened the 2014 election year with a $1 million ad blitz on television, radio and the Internet – about the same amount of money that his six GOP challengers in June’s primary raised combined in the year’s first three months.
Now, with only five weeks remaining until the June 10 primary and $6.9 million still left to spend, the Seneca Republican appears poised to clinch a third term with ease.
The national organizations, including tea party groups, that could have leveled the playing field, boosting a Graham challenger, have not weighed in to help. Meanwhile, Graham has raised almost $1.6 million from groups that represent companies, industries and special interests. His opponents? $8,000.
Graham’s fundraising machine has raised millions across the country, drawing only 39 percent of his trackable individual contributions from Palmetto State residents, as his opponents have struggled.
“Nobody’s really got enough (money) to do an effective campaign,” a University of South Carolina political scientist said of Graham’s June primary opponents.
As a result, South Carolinians are likely to wake up on June 11 to find that Graham – often criticized by the loud, small right wing of the S.C. GOP as too moderate – has won his party's nomination, a big step closer to winning a third term, in part by piling up a huge campaign war chest.
He also shrewdly ensured that he would not face a high-profile challenger from among the state’s tea party-favorite congressmen. As one of those congressmen said, when asked why he did not challenge Graham: “Not being able to win is a really good reason not to run.”
‘A little niche’
Beyond his own campaign stash, Graham also has the help of veteran S.C. political consultants, a “grassroots army” stacked with high-profile conservative leaders, and two allies in political groups waiting in the wings to run their own pro-Graham ads, if need be.
Meanwhile, with only $1.5 million among them to spend, Graham’s challengers have to choose carefully what to say to voters – in ads most have yet to buy.
Six challengers are vying to replace 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.
But there is little evidence that any of Graham’s opponents is breaking out of the pack to present a serious challenge.
Polls show Graham’s challengers – excluding Bowers and Dunn, who entered the race to be included in those surveys – struggling to escape the single digits. Bright alone has risen above 10 percent in some polls.
To oust Graham, his opponents must combine to prevent the incumbent from getting more than half of the GOP primary vote, forcing him into a runoff in which his top challenger would have another shot.
Bowers, who only entered the race in February, has stirred the most speculation recently about possibly becoming that break-out-of-the pack challenger, quickly raising more than $400,000 after joining the contest.
But Bowers’ initial fundraising success may be a passing phase, cautions Robert Oldendick, a University of South Carolina political scientist. In January, Oldendick noted, it was Mace whose fundraising spiked, only to taper off.
“Everybody’s got a little niche that they seem to be getting money from,” he said. But the numbers show that supporters are not willing to go “all-in and say yes” to backing one candidate over any other, he added.
Bright, Cash and Connor cast their chips on an anyone-but-Graham strategy, hoping that those casting ballots in the GOP primary – which tends to attract a small turnout of more conservative party activists – would be willing to replace the incumbent with anyone from a slate of challengers.
‘Power of incumbency’
To make the quest to beat Graham even more daunting, the deep-pocketed tea party political groups that have waged war against GOP incumbents in other states have not come to the aid of Graham’s opponents.
Thus far, only three of Graham’s challengers have raised anything from political action committees – a combined $8,000. Meanwhile, Graham has raised $1.6 million from more than 400 groups representing companies, industries and other special interests.
Graham’s challengers tout endorsements from more obscure tea party groups. Graham’s supporters include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Businesses, former President George W. Bush, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and former secretaries of state and defense. His contributors also include the chiefs of major corporations around the country, and the rank-and-file of his “grassroots” operation, including South Carolina’s political elite.
While most of the challengers’ money has come from within state, Graham has had success raising money across the country.
Just over $3 of every $10 that Graham has raised from individuals and political committees for his re-election campaign – excluding donations of $200 or less, where campaigns do not have to disclose the donor or hometown – has come from S.C. donors and political groups. But that roughly $2.7 million still eclipses the money that Graham’s competitors have raised combined in South Carolina.
“The power of incumbency really is showing itself in these numbers,” said Oldendick, the USC political scientist.
“Graham has been there a fairly long time,” and he is showing contributors that “he is the electable candidate.”
Despite several months on the campaign trail, none of Graham’s challengers are pulling ahead in a way that would suggest they can “pull off a major upset,” Oldendick said.
Bowers, the Columbia pastor and retired attorney, created some buzz in the race when he surprised political observers by outpacing his competitors’ recent fundraising. Most of that money has been raised from S.C. physicians, attorneys, and real estate, insurance and finance professionals, who live mostly in the Columbia and coastal areas.
That fundraising performance earned Bowers an endorsement from RedState editor and Fox News commentator Erick Erickson.
Bowers also boasts campaign consultants with experience, hiring the national campaign manager and political director from former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential run, which included a third-place finish in South Carolina’s 2012 GOP primary.
Mace, the first woman to graduate from The Citadel, has raised the most money – excluding loans – among Graham’s challengers, more than $600,000. But her popularity has remained in the single digits in polls.
Meanwhile, Bright, the only one of Graham’s challengers to break into double digits in any poll of the race, remains severely underfunded, having raised less than $300,000.
A Harper poll conducted in October 2013 said 15 percent of voters would pick Bright. A Wenzel poll, which Bright’s campaign paid for and released in February, put his support at 17 percent. However, a February Winthrop Poll put Bright’s support at 8.5 percent among GOP primary voters, tops among Graham’s challengers but still far behind the incumbent at 45 percent.
Tea party leaves
While tea party activists across the state have lined up against Graham, that support has not won more than lip service from the deep-pocketed groups that are trying to beat Republican incumbents in other states.
Those groups – including the Senate Conservatives Fund, FreedomWorks and Club for Growth – have spent more than $3.5 million in races in other states, according to federal election filings. But those groups have not spent anything in South Carolina.
Drew Ryun of the Madison Project, which takes some of the credit for helping Ted Cruz win a U.S. Senate race in Texas, said earlier this year that he would endorse and provide grassroots support for Bowers, but that support has not materialized yet.
The absence of outside support has been telling.
Since February, Graham has aired six statewide TV and radio spots.
Meanwhile, with only about five weeks left until the June 10 primary, Graham’s challengers have posted few ads.
Mace has run a TV and radio ad, and Conner has run a TV ad. Bowers and Dunn have not released any ads yet. However, Bright and Cash say TV ads are imminent.
Unlike the other candidates, Graham has allies that could step in to raise and spend a lot of money if necessary.
The S.C. Conservative Action Alliance, chaired by David Wilkins, a former state House speaker from Greenville and U.S. ambassador to Canada, ran a pro-Graham ad in December, featuring former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee who praised Graham for his foreign policy positions.
The alliance, an educational nonprofit, cannot endorse candidates. But it can run issues-oriented ads that feature politicians.
Wilkins is also a member of Graham’s grassroots campaign team.
Another pro-Graham group – the West Main Street Values PAC, chaired by former S.C. GOP chairman Katon Dawson – also is raising money to support Graham.
Last year, Boeing, the aircraft manufacturer with a North Charleston plant, gave $25,000 through its political action committee to West Main Street. Super PAC for America gave another $50,000.
West Main Street raised another $193,000 from January through March, according to federal campaign finance reports. About half of that money came from Larry Mizel, chairman and chief executive of MDC Holdings, a home-building company based in Denver, Colo.
Graham raised more than $27,000 from individual donors in Denver during the first quarter, trailing only New York City for the most contributions made to the incumbent. For the entire election cycle, the five most lucrative cities for Graham’s fundraising from individuals have been New York, Columbia, Greenville, Charleston and Los Angeles.
T-minus five weeks
Asked periodically whether Graham’s challengers have a chance of winning, political scientists have given similar, but increasingly pessimistic, answers.
They said a credible challenger – perhaps one of the state’s freshman congressmen, who have carved out names for themselves on Capitol Hill – could have posed a serious threat to Graham.
But Graham’s political savvy staved off any top-tier challengers, according to a Washington-based political news outlet.
Last month, Politico reported that, about the time that some S.C. activists were asking the rising GOP stars in the state’s U.S. House delegation to run against Graham, the senator extended his help to the congressmen.
According to Politico, Graham lobbied House Speaker John Boehner to get U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a freshman at the time, a spot on the powerful House Financial Services Committee.
Asked about the possibility running for Graham’s seat, Mulvaney, who defeated longtime Democratic House Budget Committee chairman John Spratt in 2010, demurred, saying Graham is highly regarded in the state except for a minority of conservatives who dislike him.
In another interview, Mulvaney said, “Not being able to win is a really good reason not to run.”
Similarly, political scientists say the odds are stacked against Graham’s challengers.
“They should be spending money now,” said Oldendick, the USC political scientist. “But nobody’s really got enough to do an effective campaign.”
Still, Graham’s decision to debate his opponents on ETV – three days before the primary – could mean he thinks the race is not a “slam dunk,” Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon told The State newspaper last month.
That decision to debate also could mean nothing, Huffmon added. That close to an election, most voters’ minds are made up.
Like Oldendick, Huffmon agrees that Graham’s opponents need to be spending money now.
Or they should consider another strategy, Huffmon said: “Finding a way for every news outlet to be uttering your name.”
Election 2014: U.S. Senate | Who’s backing the candidates?
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham
Columbia pastor Det Bowers
State Sen. Lee Bright
Easley businessman Richard Cash
Orangeburg attorney Bill Connor