By Stephen Largen
Lindsey Graham was supposed to be a marked man. Or so the narrative went. For years, conservative activists in South Carolina have talked of dethroning South Carolina’s senior U.S. senator via a tea-party leaning primary challenger. At one point, Graham was considered in national circles to be perhaps the most primary-vulnerable Senate Republican up for re-election next year. Outside groups with deep pockets have announced they will target him if a credible contender emerges.
Graham, 58, is a bête noire to some conservatives in this GOP-dominated state for his backing of President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees and his support for immigration reform, among other stances.
Unlike every other member of the state’s Washington delegation, Graham supports the NSA’s data collection efforts — an issue on which he’s clashed with 2016 GOP presidential contender and tea-party favorite Rand Paul of Kentucky.
It all adds up to toxic brew for the state’s far-right wing, despite Graham’s outspokenness over the last year on several issues important to conservatives such as last year’s Benghazi consulate attack and gun control.
“If we want to retire Lindsey, this is the time to do it,” says Janet Spencer, the chairwoman of the Myrtle Beach-based Carolina Patriots.
Spencer was among the activists to gather in Columbia last month for a meeting aimed at uniting the state’s tea party groups behind a single Graham challenger.
But for all the disillusionment with Graham in certain GOP circles, any effort to defeat him would still be an uphill climb.
As of the end of June, Graham was sitting on $6.3 million in campaign cash. And while his approval rating among Republicans and GOP-leaning voters had dipped slightly compared to earlier this year, he’s still in strong position.
“It’s very unlikely,” Winthrop Poll director Scott Huffmon says of an upset of Graham.
But Graham shouldn’t get too comfortable.
“When the forces get mobilized and they solidify behind one (challenger), with the influx of outside money that can come in, I’d say it’s better to run scared than assume you’re going to win,” says Michael Bitzer, a professor at Catawba College and a long time observer of S.C. politics.
South Carolina voters have shown a rebellious streak in recent years, most notably with the election of Gov. Nikki Haley in 2010 and Newt Gingrich’s 2012 GOP primary victory.
To that end, a trio of Republican candidates have lined up to Graham’s right flank in hopes of catching the next insurgent wave.
While Democrats have at least one candidate running for the seat, businessman Jay Stamper, they aren’t aren’t expected to stand any chance in the race. [Note: Online copy corrected]
Upstate businessman and former congressional candidate Richard Cash was the first Republican to announce a bid in the spring.
Cash said he’s running because Graham is “part of the old guard” and “outside the mainstream of the Republican Party.”
State Sen. Lee Bright of Spartanburg County, father to several controversial, ultraconservative bills in recent legislative sessions, is expected to announce his entry into the contest within the next few weeks.
“I just don’t think the folks of South Carolina, given an option, will send Lindsey Graham back to Washington,” Bright said.
Graham’s strongest challenge is widely expected to come from Charleston businesswoman Nancy Mace.
Mace officially confirmed her bid last weekend after months of speculation.
Mace, 35, runs a PR and marketing firm and has never held political office.
Her outsider status and compelling personal narrative — she was the first female graduate of The Citadel — could draw major media attention.
And Mace has the potential to garner the outside money that figures to be critical in the race against the cash-flush Graham.
She says Graham hasn’t adhered consistently enough to key conservative principles and is part of a broader problem in Washington.
“People are so frustrated and disappointed with what’s happening, they feel like nobody is listening to them,” Mace said in an interview last week before officially announcing her candidacy.
Graham’s office did not respond to an interview request from Free Times.
In 2010, Graham told the New York Times Magazine that the tea party “can never come up with a coherent vision for governing the country” and would “die out.”
He’s about to find out if he spoke too soon.
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