No, thanks, S.C. Republicans said Tuesday, deciding they will stick with Lindsey Graham despite loud criticisms from a vocal minority.
That message echoed in Tuesday's GOP primary, as voters pushed Graham past half the vote, keeping him out of a June 24 runoff against the largest field of opponents he ever has faced.
Graham’s six GOP challengers predicted the primary would be a referendum on the two-term incumbent's record. Instead, Republican voters bucked Tea Party dissenters and gave Graham roughly 60 percent of the vote, lending credence to criticism the “anybody-but-Graham” movement is driven by a vocal but small minority.
"What my opponents saw as my biggest fault, which was trying to solve a problem, South Carolina Republicans saw as my greatest asset," Graham said celebrating Tuesday’s win at the Hilton in Columbia, promising to continue working across the aisle.
Recalling how he and his sister relied on Social Security survivors’ benefits after their parents died, he said, "To my Democratic friends, Social Security is worth saving. If you need a partner, Lindsey Graham is here."
After his 20-minute speech, Graham grew emotional, thanking his family and South Carolinians as his eyes welled up. "I will not let you down.”
Despite his decisive win, Graham’s campaign and his allies did not take his challengers for granted.
Leaving a May campaign barbecue at the Riverbanks Zoo, Graham told The State that he was leading his GOP challengers – at least on that day – by his campaign’s count.
But incumbents face “headwinds,” he said. “If it doesn't come together on June 10, it's all talk.”
Graham’s worries were all for naught.
Finishing a distant second was state Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, in the teens. Others running were: Columbia pastor Det Bowers, Easley businessman Richard Cash, Orangeburg attorney Bill Connor, Columbia attorney Benjamin Dunn, and Charleston PR executive Nancy Mace.
Graham’s win deals a blow to the state’s Tea Party activists who hoped their anti-tax, limited-government message – and disdain for the Seneca Republican’s willingness to work across the political aisle – had grown in power since the 2010 elections, which saw three Tea Party-backed congressmen elected from South Carolina.
Graham will be the heavy favorite in November’s general election, facing Libertarian Victor Kocher of Columbia and Democratic state Sen. Brad Hutto of Orangeburg, who beat Jay Stamper of Irmo in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-Charleston, also won his GOP primary Tuesday easily, defeating Greenville Republican Randall Young. Scott also will be the heavy favorite in November, when he will face Democrat Joyce Dickerson, a Richland County Council member, and American Party candidate Jill Bossi of Tega Cay.
Graham is less worried about the November contest, predicting over the weekend that he will “beat the Democratic candidate’s brains out.”
How Graham won
Graham’s win Tuesday came after considerable preparation.
A year before Tuesday’s contest, Graham’s political machine began to take shape with the formation of a statewide grassroots network and coalitions of supporters representing different industries and interests.
Graham’s financial arsenal kept growing, too. The two-term incumbent raised more than $11.6 million for his re-election bid, out-fundraising his GOP challengers by four dollars for every one dollar they raised combined.
Graham’s re-election effort also was helped when GOP contenders who could have gained statewide support – including U.S. Reps. Mick Mulvaney, R-Indian Land, and Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg – stayed out of the fray.
Political groups allied with Graham also ran favorable ads, operated phone banks to get out the vote, and sat in wait in case outside groups decided to back one of the senator’s opponents.
The pro-Graham West Main Street Values political action committee raised $750,000 to defend Graham, said former S.C. GOP chairman Katon Dawson, adding the group had more donors on standby if anti-Graham dollars starting flowing into the state.
Dawson, who launched the pro-Graham committee, said he wanted to put third-party groups on notice that they would not come into South Carolina without a fight.
Asked about the leader of the Senate Conservatives Fund, a potent political group that targeted Graham in late 2013 and backed Tea-Party candidates in other states, Dawson said: “I was prepared to get in a fist-fight with him.”
No top-tier challenger
Contributing to Graham’s success Tuesday was his ability to avoid a serious challenger. His opponents Tuesday were almost entirely political newcomers or previously failed candidates.
Despite encouragement from some conservatives, two high-profile candidates – Mulvaney and Gowdy – said early on they had no interest in running against Graham.
Some said Graham headed off a challenge from the congressmen, both Tea Party favorites, by helping advance their congressional careers.
For example, Graham called House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to help Mulvaney get a seat on the influential Financial Services Committee. Graham also pushed for Gowdy to get the plum assignment of leading a House committee investigating the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
But Graham said those moves were goodwill toward junior members of the state’s congressional delegation, not a politically savvy manuever to stave off a serious challenger.
“Political people have to explain events in a political way, and sometimes the answer is obvious,” Graham told The State Sunday in Charleston. “Trey (Gowdy) and I have been friends for 20 years. He's great at what he does. I think I'm good at what I do. I couldn't have a better friend.”
Mulvaney told The State Tuesday that he has asked Graham for help in the same way he has asked Gowdy, Scott and others.
“Coming from a small state, being in only my second term, and trying for an ‘A’ committee, the only way I was going to get the position was as part of a team effort,” said Mulvaney, adding he “made it very clear” after his election to Congress that he did not plan to run against Graham.
“(W)e tend to elect senators for 50 years at a time or so in South Carolina, so my guess is Tim and Lindsey will be here for a while,” Mulvaney said.
Asked if he worried about someone like Mulvaney running against him, Graham responded, “Ambition is a good thing.”
But, he added, “If I am challenged, I will respond. But we are close friends. They see value in me in the Senate.”
An ally in DeMint?
To hear Graham’s challengers talk, South Carolinians were aching to replace him with someone more conservative, someone like former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, the Greenville Republican who resigned to run the Heritage Foundation.
But Graham’s take on his relationship with DeMint is that it was collaborative, not conflicting.
“Jim understood that my political profile and his were different, and we used it to the benefit of the state. There were a lot of times that Jim pushed the party to a more conservative position, and there were a lot of times that I closed the deal. We worked together.
“We did that a lot – good cop, bad cop – a lot. I think he appreciated the votes I took, and I appreciated what he did,” Graham said of DeMint, who was unavailable to comment.
Laying the groundwork
Graham’s campaign moved early to prepare for any serious threat in the 2014 primary.
Last summer, staffers gathered in a windowless office, off of Colonial Life Boulevard, and made lists of potential supporters and groups they wanted represented in their grassroots network. Their goal was to have supporters in all 46 counties and coalitions representing different interests and industries ready to mobilize on the senator’s behalf.
“We’ve never had this many people,” Graham said of his base of supporters. “People just want to stand up and say, ‘You know, I don't agree with you all the time, but I like what you're trying to do,’ and they're coming out of the woodwork.”
In the months leading up to the June 10 primary, Graham’s campaign announced a “grassroots army,” including more than 5,220 precinct captains and 176 county chairmen representing 46 counties. Graham’s county chairs came from the state’s political elite, including influential state senators and representatives.
Graham’s campaign boasted coalitions of supporters from pro-life and pro-family groups, farmers and sportsmen, young professionals and students, and other groups.
The 25 members of Graham’s national security coalition included S.C. Adjutant General Bob Livingston, a Medal of Honor recipient and a host of retired officers from different military branches.
The campaign then asked coalition members to send out personalized postcards to their contacts, touting Graham’s position on legislation affecting their interests. Supporters in rural counties doubled as sign depots.
Spurring the ‘softies’
Graham also had powerful friends working to help him.
On Monday, a group of mostly teenagers piled around a work table, improvised from a Ping-Pong table, in a Lexington garage. The teens were working for Dawson’s pro-Graham West Main Street Values PAC. They had headsets and tablet PCs, and were making calls to encourage voters to go to the polls Tuesday.
Increasing voter turnout would increase the chances of Graham, who appeals to moderate conservatives, winning Tuesday’s primary, said political consultant Walt Whetsell, who helps run the West Main Street Values PAC.
To that end, the teen callers were focusing on the 183,000 voters who cast their first-ever GOP primary ballots in the 2012 Republican presidential primary. By Tuesday, they hoped to reach everyone on their list.
Those voters are not the hard-core conservatives that most often vote in primaries, Whetsell said. Instead, they are the “passive softies” who might sit out a primary unless given a reason to invest themselves in the race.
But while outside groups lined up to help Graham, they barely raised a finger on behalf of his opponents. Groups not tied to any candidate’s campaign spent more than $400,000 on Tuesday’s Senate race. Only $999 of that money came from a group opposing Graham.
‘Conservative by rational definition’
Asked his re-election strategy, Graham said, first, he knows every precinct.
“This is my life,” Graham said, quickly adding, “and my job.”
Second, “If you run on a Ron Paul agenda, and he's a fine fella, you're going to get Ron Paul (losing) numbers,” Graham said.
“At the end of the day, my strength is always underappreciated – that's a good thing,” he said. “I'm a conservative, by any rational definition, but I stand out when I'm doing the one in 10 things. It would have never made news before that Republicans and Democrats try to solve a problem. In today's environment it does.”
Graham said he comes from a long line of conservatives – including President Ronald Reagan, former S.C. Gov. Carroll Campbell, and U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond – who represent the two-thirds of the Republican Party that matters.
“The loudness of the other group can be easily mistaken for a lot,” Graham said.
“I have good hearing,” he added. “(But) I always have known that loud doesn't mean a lot.”