In July 2010, at the height of the Tea Party’s power — when Don’t Tread on Me flags bloomed across South Carolina and fresh-faced insurgents vanquished establishment GOP stalwarts — Lindsey Graham wasn’t worried.
His next election was four years away, and as he rode in a sedan through his native Upstate with a New York Times magazine reporter profiling him, the state’s senior U.S. senator explained that he didn’t think the Tea Party was sustainable.
“It will die out,” he said.
That was a bold statement in 2010 — especially from an establishment Republican figure like Graham in a politically volatile state like South Carolina. A month earlier, a Tea Partier named Trey Gowdy had taken down Republican Upstate Congressman Bob Inglis in a primary. That same year, relative unknown Nikki Haley vaulted over an establishment GOP field to take the governor’s mansion on a Tea Party wave.
By that time, grassroots conservative resentment had also been bubbling up around Graham, a mainstream, business-oriented Republican insider known for working with Democrats on big agenda items like immigration and the environment. In 2008, Graham had easily survived a primary challenge from Buddy Witherspoon, who focused his campaign almost exclusively on immigration. Later, though, Graham began taking heavy fire on his right flank. In 2009, while making the case for a bigger Republican tent during a speech at the state party’s convention, Graham faced down hecklers when he said U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was “not the leader” of the GOP and warned that he wasn’t going to turn the party over to people who couldn’t win.
“I’m a winner, pal,” Graham scolded one heckler. “Winning matters to me. If it doesn’t matter to you, there’s the exit sign.”
Since then, a handful of county Republican parties have voted to censure Graham for being out of step with the GOP platform.
That said, establishment Republicans in South Carolina still “worship at the guy’s doorstep,” says retired Francis Marion political scientist Neal Thigpen.
This year, former state GOP chairman Katon Dawson is managing a pro-Graham Super PAC and says the value the incumbent brings to the state “very well overshadows the people who think he needs to be replaced.” Former Attorney General Henry McMaster supports Graham’s re-election, as does U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson of “You lie!” fame. Graham has the backing of the state Chamber of Commerce and local conservative state House members like Kirkman Finlay. And while Gov. Haley hasn’t flat-out endorsed him, she has praised him for helping her fight on various issues. He’s also locked down many of the state’s traditional political consulting heavyweights.
Those are good arrows to have in his quiver, but perhaps more important for Graham is that he was able to escape a primary challenge from a top-tier candidate this year. All of the state’s Tea Party congressmen decided to pass on the race. Beaufort state Sen. Tom Davis, a hero of the Tea Party and liberty movements and a staunch Ron Paul ally, also chose not to run, leaving the six other names on the June 10 primary ballot to essentially make up a kind of Palmetto State B-and-C team. As of last week, none of those candidates had raised close to $1 million, while Graham has around $7 million on hand for the race and a likely army of Super PACs that would fly in money and support to help him should he need it.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, currently has his influential Crystal Ball report showing the U.S. Senate race here leaning toward Graham. He says what’s happening in South Carolina is a reflection of national trends where he believes targeted GOP incumbents who once appeared vulnerable are likely to survive their primaries.
“This is not going to be 2010 all over again for the Tea Party,” Sabato says. “You don’t have a prominent candidate running against Graham. He has been smart about which issues he has stressed in the past year. He has taken on Obama both domestically and internationally. That plays well in South Carolina. There just isn’t enough there to toss him out. South Carolina is still one of those states, because of Strom Thurmond and also Fritz Hollings, that realizes the value of seniority.”
In other words, for the GOP establishment, it’s almost like the empire struck back. Polling confirms the shift: 91 percent of registered state voters said in a recent Winthrop University poll that they don’t consider themselves part of the Tea Party movement.
For his part, Graham is shifting his focus from big fundraising efforts to his ground game, sporting a confident swagger as he’s campaigned throughout the state at barbecues and pancake breakfasts.
“I think people underestimate the support I have,” he told Free Times at a recent Columbia fundraiser with young professionals at River Rat Brewery. “The criticism I have is loud, but the support is deep.”
As confident as Graham might be with regard to his GOP challengers, they’re still the main opposition he faces. It’s become the norm in statewide South Carolina races that the real election is in June, because Democrats are rarely capable of mounting serious challenges in the fall. Graham is widely expected to trounce either of the Democrats he could face in November, Jay Stamper — who first came to attention a decade ago as a political prankster playing jokes with GOP-related Internet domain names and pleaded guilty in 2006 to three securities-related charges — or state Sen. Brad Hutto, a consistent progressive voice but not one considered likely to raise the kind of money that would be needed to unseat an entrenched GOP incumbent.
As the big re-election machine rolls through South Carolina, out in the hinterlands Graham’s six GOP challengers are struggling to make a case for why voters should choose one of them to take him out in the June 10 primary — or, more likely, put him in a runoff two weeks later.
On a recent Monday outside the doors of a Republican women’s club meeting at The Citadel, GOP activist Dee Hollis was talking about the Graham race as she signed people in to the event.
“I just don’t think anyone can beat him,” she said with a shrug and a smile. Not long after her remark, a tall, clean-shaven man with a buzz cut and a gray suit came up to introduce himself and sign in.
Hollis didn’t recognize the man, Benjamin Dunn. When informed that he was one of Graham’s half-dozen challengers, she looked quickly to the sign-in sheet. “Brian Dunn?” she asked, mistaking his first name. “What’s his background?”
Such is life on the campaign trail for some of the Sisyphus six trying to gain traction. In addition to Dunn, the others include Nancy Mace, a Goose Creek political consultant and former partner of irreverent politics blog FITSNews; Spartanburg Sen. Lee Bright; Orangeburg attorney Bill Connor; Upstate abortion activist Richard Cash; and Columbia pastor Det Bowers. Connor is the only one to have run a statewide political race before; he ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2010.
None of the challengers has been able to catch fire in the several months they’ve been campaigning throughout the state. A February poll from Winthrop University had Graham at 45 percent support, with his closest opponent, Bright, at 9 percent. This despite Graham’s relatively low approval rating — just 39.6 percent of registered voters approve of the job he’s doing, according to a Winthrop Poll released April 16.
During a recent candidate forum in an auditorium in downtown Aiken — Graham and Bright both said they had scheduling conflicts — some voters got a glimpse at most of the anti-Graham field. Instead of tearing down each other throughout the forum, they focused more on the incumbent and on their own personal stories.
Their rap on Graham is largely consistent: the incumbent is too moderate and has been in Washington too long; he voted for President Barack Obama’s nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court; he supports the NSA’s spying program but didn’t support shutting down the government to thwart Obamacare; and he works with Democrats too much on issues like immigration. Earlier this year, Bright, Cash and Connor each signed a pledge vowing to support the other if any of them end up in a runoff with Graham.
Outside the Aiken forum, a couple were walking to their car and talking about the event.
“Well, I know who I’m going to vote for,” Lynn Maser told her husband.
That would be Bill Connor, she said. It was Connor’s presentation and understanding of history and how it reflects on today’s times, she said, that did it for her. Her husband, Dick, said he was split between Dunn and Connor. He likes their military backgrounds. Neither of the Masers has voted for Graham in a primary before, they said, but they have voted for him in general elections because they had no choice.
“What scares me is we’ve got too many of them running in the primary; it’s going to divide the vote too much, and it scares me that it’s going to give Lindsey an undeserved victory again,” Lynn said. “Plus,” added Dick, “Lindsey seems to have a lot more money.”
Despite Graham’s lead in fundraising and in the polls, one thing his supporters worry about is the potential for a runoff. In South Carolina, if a U.S. Senate candidate does not get 50 percent of the vote in a primary, he or she will face the candidate with the next highest vote total. With so many candidates in the race, each Republican challenger would have to average just 8.5 percent of the vote in the June 10 primary to force Graham into another election.
Runoff campaigns in South Carolina are just two weeks long — not much time for a lesser-known candidate to campaign statewide and get out a message. On the flipside, some Graham supporters privately worry that a special runoff election will bring out a disproportionately activist base — and that could spell trouble for Graham.
“I want to avoid a runoff, but if we get in a runoff, we’ll win and here’s why,” Graham says about such a prospect. “The people who believe in me — the people who believe that I’ve got something to offer when it comes to helping men and women in uniform and being able to get something done for South Carolina — have my back. You’re not going to beat the people in South Carolina that are conservative, but also are problem solvers. There are just more of us.”
If, however, Graham does lose in a June primary runoff, a group of South Carolina business leaders has quietly been working on a plan to thwart the Republican winner from ever seeing the U.S. Senate chamber in Washington.
The effort is a “contingency plan,” former Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian said in March. The well-connected Columbia attorney was approached by unnamed business leaders in the state, he said, to research what could be done if Graham loses.
“They’re concerned that if Lindsey would lose the primary to one of these — as they described them — ‘wingnuts’ that are running against him, that the state be in a position to field a petition candidate,” Harpootlian said.
Any potential petition candidate would need to get 10,000 signatures by July 15 in order to get on the ballot, Harpootlian says. Since Graham’s primary election is in June, there would be little time to collect the signatures.
Nonetheless, Harpootlian says, “My understanding is that some independent people would be able to field a candidate.” He declines to name names, but says such a candidate would be capable of funding their own campaign.
Whether such an effort could actually be successful is in doubt. Any time a candidate who doesn’t represent one of the major parties enters a race it’s extremely difficult for them to win, says Winthrop University political scientist and pollster Scott Huffmon.
“Uphill battle is just not enough of a cliché to describe how difficult it is,” he told Free Times for an April 9 story on third-party candidates. He added, however, that winning is “always made more plausible when it’s someone who has very high name recognition and a lot of wealth.”
In the past, when South Carolina politicos have talked about the idea of an independent business leader able to a run self-financed campaign for one statewide office or another, Darla Moore’s name has often come up. The extremely wealthy and well-respected Wall Street financier has given money to both Republicans and Democrats, and her name graces the University of South Carolina business school in Columbia.
Last spring, The State newspaper asked Moore if she planned to get involved in the 2014 statewide races for governor or U.S. Senate.
“Not really,” she said. “My faith in elected office is so diminished that I don’t think it’s going to make that much difference, frankly. The system is so broken that one person or one election is not going to impact it.”
For Huffmon, anyone working on a possible plan to help a petition candidate get on the ballot between the June primary election and mid-July signature-collection deadline should be thinking about how early they should make any potential candidate’s name public.
“If they actually expect to pull this off they have to get this candidate and the logic for why it is important in front of the voters sooner rather than later,” he says. “At what point to do you start trying to get people aware of this?”
Meanwhile, on a South Carolina-themed TV reality show, someone has been doing just that. But here’s the twist: Former Republican State Treasurer Thomas Ravenel, who resigned and went to prison on federal cocaine charges in 2007, says he’ll run as an independent if Graham wins his primary, rather than if he loses.
Ravenel is currently a reality TV star on the show Southern Charm on the Bravo channel. He says voters need a candidate who is pro-liberty and less socially conservative.
Though the Tea Party has lost much of its steam nationally and in South Carolina, a grassroots rebellion is still roiling around Graham.
During a meeting of the Charleston County Republican Party on a recent Monday, a single item two-thirds of the way down the page of that night’s agenda caused a bit of a scene. After a few state-level GOP candidates gave brief stump speeches, a man walked up to the podium with a four-page resolution.
“This resolution is somewhat controversial,” the man cautioned before he began reading. “This is a resolution in support of the censure of Senator Lindsey Graham, U.S. Senator, the state of South Carolina.”
Some rumblings went through the crowd.
“I’m leaving!” snapped a woman near the front as she stood and blustered toward the door with heads turning her way. “This is bulls#!t,” she said on her way out. About five others followed, but the vast majority of the 100 or so in the crowd stayed to listen.
The man went on to read a list of reasons why the Charleston County GOP should censure Graham.
“Lindsey Graham has committed a long series of actions that we strongly disapprove of and hold to be fundamentally inconsistent with the principles of the South Carolina Republican Party,” he said.
The man ticked down a list, which included Graham’s vote to appoint Obama’s nominees to the federal Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection; his alleged support for “arming Al Qaeda” and the “Muslim Brotherhood revolutionaries in Syria”; his support for “amnesty but not border control”; his approval of the NSA’s “spying on private American citizens”; his support for an Internet sales tax; his votes to confirm Obama’s appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court; his positions on climate change and bank bailouts; and other apparent misdeeds. (For his part, Graham says, “All of these censure resolutions are completely outside the bounds of what happened.”)
As the man read the charges against Graham, out in the hallway things were getting a little hairy. The woman who had stormed out, Deborah Streetman, a county GOP executive committeewoman from the Isle of Palms, was still fuming.
“These are the same people that are the insane people after Ron Paul,” she said. “They come out and what they do is they alienate people, scream, call you names ... They’re rude and they’re trying to force the vote.”
Streetman was upset, she said, because the party is supposed to treat candidates in the GOP primary — including the incumbent — equally.
Streetman’s friend, Patricia Ryan, had also walked out of the meeting. She’s no Graham fan, she said, but she didn’t like how nasty some in the party have been acting about him.
“I just don’t like dirty politics,” she said. “It’s going to tear the party apart.”
The county party didn’t vote on the resolution that night; it’s expected to come up for a vote in May.
As Graham campaigns throughout South Carolina this year, he’s doing so in a way that acknowledges the conservative criticism of him as a Washington dealmaker who works with the other side.
“I’m a conservative, but I am not ideological to a fault,” he told Free Times. “I know this country can only survive with Republicans and Democrats solving the big issues like immigration and entitlement reform … I’m not the angry white guy.”
He’s also saying similar things on the stump. On April 16, Graham was making his way through a packed fundraiser of young professionals at the River Rat Brewery in the shadow of Williams-Brice Stadium. The gathering was a who’s who of Columbia Republicans under 45, including current Republican Party Chairman Matt Moore, the youngest state party chair in the nation, who drank beer and listened to a live band outside, surrounded by red-white-and-blue balloons.
“I don’t know how to fix the country’s problems with just the Republicans doing it by themselves,” Graham told the crowd. “I do understand give and take.”
Graham knew his audience, mentioning drinking and beer several times.
“I’m the first in my family to go to college,” he said. “My mom died when I was 21. My dad died when I was 22 … there are a lot of people who claim to be self-made. I am certainly not one.” He talked about Pell Grants and student loans. About getting Social Security survivor benefits.
“My parents owned a liquor store, a pool room, and a bar, which is great training for politics,” he said. “And what I love about this country is that you can grow up in the back of a liquor store and become a senator. There are very few places in the world where that can happen.”
Despite consistent critiques from the right back home, Graham has been ranked as one of the top five budget cutters in the U.S. Senate by the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, snagged a score of 92 from the American Conservative Union, and carries an A rating from the NRA.
In the past year, he’s also been wrestling with the red-meat issues that hit the sweet spot for conservatives back home. Last winter, he told a Senate panel he owned an AR-15 assault rifle because he’d need one if society collapsed and gangs started marauding. He’s been hawkish on Syria and a stickler on Benghazi. He threatened to block the president’s nominees for Federal Reserve chair and Department of Homeland Security secretary over the White House’s handling of the Benghazi issue. He introduced a proposal to ban abortions after 20 weeks. Last fall, he voted against legislation (which passed 64-32) prohibiting businesses from making government employment decisions based on sexuality or gender identity.
But he defends some of the larger knocks against him, such as supporting Obama’s nominations to the Supreme Court by saying elections have consequences and the nominees were qualified to serve. And he’s not afraid to say he didn’t think shutting down the government was the best strategy to block Obamacare.
“I’m confident that I’m going to win, but the goal is to be myself and win,” Graham says. “That’s the goal. I don’t want to go back for the sake of going back. I want to go back proving to people that I’m a good conservative but I’m also a guy who gets things done. And that’s why I haven’t tried to be anything other than Lindsey.”
On the stump, Columbia pastor and former lawyer Det Bowers transitions easily from quoting the Bible to quoting Shakespeare. He’s running against Graham, he says, because Republicans in the state need a candidate they can trust. He pledges to shrink the size of government, balance the budget, secure the U.S. border with Mexico and distance the federal government from our families.
His biggest gripe with Graham is on what he calls “amnesty.” Bowers feels a pathway to citizenship should be difficult and if anyone in the country illegally committed a crime in America or Mexico, they cannot stay. If not, he says, an undocumented immigrant should pay a fine, pay back taxes, go through a rigorous citizenship course, make English his or her primary language. Only then could they be allowed to work, but could never be allowed to vote.
About climate change, Bowers believes it might be a “controlled agenda” and the government shouldn’t spend money on an issue where’s there’s so much disagreement. When it comes to education, he calls the Department of Education “dictators.” He wants to repeal Obamacare and agrees with Graham’s position on Benghazi.
Staking his flag on ground probably furthest to the right of Graham in the race, Spartanburg Sen. Lee Bright, operator of a troubled Upstate trucking company, has been adept at grabbing national headlines for giving away AR-15 rifles, and for calling the incumbent things like “a community organizer for the Muslim Brotherhood.”
On immigration, Bright does not support “any form” of amnesty. He likens himself to members of the U.S. Senate like Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz in Texas. Out on the stump, Bright speaks of having a deep distrust in the federal government. With a folksy, conversational tone, Bright has told crowds that he doesn’t care if the media make him look a little crazy because he does and says what he thinks is right even if it might not be politically correct.
In the state Legislature, Bright has introduced legislation that would study whether South Carolina should mint its own currency, supported pro-life measures and sponsored measures that would make guns manufactured in South Carolina exempt from federal regulation and allow South Carolina to carry firearms without a permit.
Easley businessman Richard Cash likens himself to the man he lost a GOP primary congressional election to in 2010: Tea Partier Jeff Duncan. Cash says the reason so many candidates are running against Graham is, “We think Graham compromises too much and ends up on the side of the Democrats.”
If elected, Cash says he would focus on what he calls the Three Cs: Christianity, capitalism and the Constitution.
“All parts of our heritage are under attack,” Cash says. He believes the country is moving toward socialism, secularism and centralism.
Graham, he says, has become emblematic of the Washington establishment who is out of touch with South Carolina’s values. On immigration, Cash says undocumented immigrants broke the law when they came across the border and the law needs to be enforced.
When asked what specifically he disagreed with Graham most on in the past year, Cash said Graham’s support for a clean budget hike.
He’d like to see the federal government get out of education, and see the U.S. get out of foreign conflicts that “aren’t our fight.” He’s also not afraid to rattle the sabers in the culture war, saying there’s a “virtue deficit” in an America that has degraded the value of human life.
At a recent candidate forum in Aiken, Orangeburg attorney and Afghan combat vet Bill Connor showed his campaign experience with a presence that seemed to resonate with audience members. Brandishing a pocket Constitution, Connor said the wheels are coming off the country and that’s why he got involved in politics.
He’s for scrapping the federal Department of Education; says there’s “No amnesty when it comes to being illegal”; and says the Muslim Brotherhood is advising the Obama administration on border security.
When it comes to compromise, Connor said Republicans can find areas to agree with Democrats such as on issues like civil liberties. But he said Republicans shouldn’t vote to confirm Obama’s picks for the Supreme Court.
Connor pitches himself in the mold of Graham’s Senate colleague Ted Cruz of Texas who spearheaded the effort to defund Obamacare in the budget that led to the government shutdown. He disavows stimulus spending.
“What I see is an election-year conservative,” Connor says of Graham. On foreign policy, Connor says he didn’t see any U.S. interests in getting involved in Lybia or Syria, but believes the U.S. has a duty to get involved in Ukraine. He does not trust the “agenda” of climate change and worries that mass hysteria over global warming might lead to a “world-control” government.
Columbia lawyer and Afghan veteran Benjamin Dunn was the last to jump into the race and so far posted the smallest amount of fundraising.
He’s running, he says, because he’s concerned about the direction of the country and wants to “restore financial sanity to the federal government” and divest power back to the states.
“Conservatives are sick and tired of Democrats growing government as fast as they can and Republicans growing it as fast as they can get away with,” he says.
One of his biggest problems with Graham is the incumbent’s support for the NSA.
“I cannot think of a more poignant example why he must, must be replaced,” Dunn said on the stump.
When it comes to immigration, Dunn says the E-verify program should be nationalized, and he believes the federal government should stay out of education.
He agrees with Graham on the need to get answers about Benghazi and says Republicans must “stay on it.”
On foreign policy, he says America should only get involved in foreign entanglements “when we have an interest,” but when the U.S. does commit, it needs to dominate on the battlefield.
The first female graduate of The Citadel, Nancy Mace, 36, runs a political and public relations firm and was previously a partner in the controversial and popular politics blog FITSNews.
While media reports say Graham has a strong chance of going back to Washington, Mace told a crowd in Aiken recently that she believes he’s in the fight for his political life. Graham, she says, doesn’t work for the people of South Carolina, but instead works for the machine of lobbyists, media and special interests. He’s been in Washington for 20 years, and he’s become “more liberal year after year,” she said. “The only way we’re going to change Washington is to change who we send there.”
On immigration, Mace says she believes that if undocumented immigrants work hard, pay taxes and speak English they can earn citizenship — but the last thing the country needs is to reward people whose first step in the United States was to break the law.
She said there’s a place for compromise in American government but Republicans need to stand stronger on issues like health care policy. “Obamacare is choking the life out of the medical community and also small businesses,” she said.
Her biggest gripe with Graham over the past year was his support for an Internet sales tax and his support of domestic spying by the NSA.
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