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Who can beat Lindsey Graham?

By Peter Hamby, CNN Political Reporter
updated 3:13 PM EDT, Fri August 30, 2013
Conservative tea party activists have made Sen. Lindsey Graham a target in part because of his working with Democrats on issues like immigration reform.
Conservative tea party activists have made Sen. Lindsey Graham a target in part because of his working with Democrats on issues like immigration reform.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Incumbent Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham is targeted by conservative activists
  • Tea party activist: 'We don't like Lindsey Graham'
  • Despite his vulnerability, a strong primary challenge to Graham hasn't emerged
  • Expanding the runoff process from two weeks to 35 days could be game-changer

Columbia, South Carolina (CNN) -- Since the elections of 2010, when a tide of grassroots fervor swept through the state and vaulted a bumper crop of fresh-faced conservative leaders into office, South Carolina's Republican political establishment has been drastically reshaped.

The state's governor, Nikki Haley, is a 41-year -old Indian-American. Tim Scott is the first African-American to represent the state in the United States Senate.

In the U.S. House, a band of ambitious South Carolina congressmen make up the backbone of GOP opposition to President Barack Obama. Inside the copper-domed statehouse in Columbia, libertarian-leaning Republicans have expanded their influence. There is chatter here that the state's lieutenant governor, an avatar of good ol' boy Republicanism who has held elected office since 1980, might finally step down after next year.

But there is one major scalp that conservative activists have yet to claim: That of Sen. Lindsey Graham, the blunt foreign policy hawk and immigration reform advocate who has needled his party's activist base for years, on issues ranging from civil liberties to tort reform to his support for Obama's appointments to the Supreme Court.

"I think I can safely speak for just about everyone in the tea party that we don't like Lindsey Graham," said Keith Tripp, a member of the Laurens County Tea Party.

But before the anti-Graham set can remove him from office, they have a more basic, pressing question to answer: Just who can beat him?

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The absence of a serious primary challenger is an enormous stroke of good luck that has Graham loyalists breathing comfortably -- for now.

Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a darling of the South Carolina right who could have instantly commanded national attention and money if he ran for the seat, passed on challenging Graham earlier this year, leaving conservatives with a trio of unpolished, lower-tier candidates who are adept at grabbing headlines but untested when it comes to mounting the kind of statewide campaign needed to topple an incumbent senator with decades of political chits in his back pocket.

"This idea that Lindsey Graham is in trouble is one of the biggest myths out there," said Richard Quinn, Graham's consultant and pollster.

A 'small but noisy' faction

Even at this early stage of the campaign, there is a sense within the state's political class that Graham, who was first elected to Congress in 1994 as part of the Republican Revolution and moved up to the Senate in 2002, will survive a threat from what many here term a "small but noisy" faction of the GOP.

Chip Felkel, a longtime GOP operative who learned the trade at the feet of Warren Abernathy, Strom Thurmond's political wrangler, has started referring to the tea party activists who have taken control of several county party organizations here as "rascals" -- "Republicans against solutions, communication and logic/leadership," he said.

"Anyone looking at this from outside the state needs to understand that while the rascals are upset with Graham, the average GOP primary voter will not see these folks as legit contenders, for a number of reasons," he said. "A race, sure; a very serious challenge, not so much."

Graham's vulnerability on the right is real, and hardly a new phenomenon: Even as he won re-election in 2008, he still managed to lose Greenville County, the state's largest Republican county, to his ineffectual primary challenger, a balding gadfly named Buddy Witherspoon who centered his entire campaign on Graham's support for immigration reform.

But Graham's advantages are many.

The senator has at least $6.25 million in his campaign war chest. That sum is growing and is expected to dwarf the cash-on-hand totals of his Republican challengers by the time the next campaign filings are due.

His supporters have also formed a super PAC, the West Main Street Values PAC, with the unstated but clear purpose of attacking whichever of his opponents, if any, emerge as a serious threat before next June's primary. With no serious Democratic candidate in a GOP-leaning state, Graham's seat is all but certain to remain in Republican hands.

"Lindsey should win and is going to win, but nothing is going to be easy this cycle," said Katon Dawson, a former state GOP chairman who created the super PAC. "Republicans are going to circle the wagons and shoot each other for a while, and then the Republican Party is going to have to decide who we are and what we represent. And Lindsey Graham is fine with me."

Also helping from the sidelines is the South Carolina Conservative Action Alliance, an independent group run by a group of Graham allies that recently enlisted former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee for a statewide radio ad calling Graham "a conservative champion."

Few here doubt that Graham will win the Republican primary, which is open to Democrats and independents.

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What makes his team anxious, though, is the prospect of Graham failing to win more than 50% of the primary vote, which would trigger a runoff election between the top two finishers.

Graham faces crowded field in primary

South Carolina runoffs are short, two-week sprints that often favor the primary winner. A more worrisome scenario for Graham backers -- currently little more than a buzzy rumor flying around Columbia -- would be a lawsuit to extend the length of the runoff and turn the Senate race into a monthlong, one-on-one clash between Graham and a single conservative opponent.

"If we catch a 35-day runoff, Lindsey is screwed," murmured one Graham supporter.

That depends on which opponent Graham draws.

Three Republicans have announced bids to unseat Graham: Nancy Mace, a marketing and public relations consultant who was the first female graduate of The Citadel, the Charleston military college; Richard Cash, a onetime anti-abortion activist and former congressional candidate who owns a fleet of ice cream trucks; and state Sen. Lee Bright, a brash conservative who backed libertarian-leaning presidential candidate Ron Paul in his race for the White House.

A fourth candidate, attorney and Army veteran Bill Connor, may join the fray in the coming weeks.

What they have in common is a belief that Graham, who made term limits a centerpiece of his first campaign for Congress in 1994, has been in Washington too long and is too willing to compromise with Democrats on banner issues. His steadfast support for the National Security Agency's surveillance program is particularly upsetting to the state's emboldened libertarian movement, which all of Graham's foes are courting.

"I don't think he is focused on our liberties as much as he is Obama's agenda," Bright said. "You would think as a conservative he would be fighting for the Bill of Rights, trying to protect our way of life. And he is not doing that. He is trying to be the chief negotiator on whatever the deal is."

Bright's small-government disposition and his ties to the Ron Paul wing of the GOP have made him a grassroots favorite in his Greenville-area senate district. But Graham allies have been calling attention to his habit of making over-the-top statements.

On the day he joined the race, Bright labeled Graham, who had traveled on a diplomatic mission this summer to Egypt, "an organizer for the Muslim Brotherhood" -- a criticism he applied to Obama this week.

"I think that Obama is very sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood," Bright told CNN. "I think he has got certain embedded hostilities to the American way of life, and he sees them as a group that has been disenfranchised by the leadership of those countries. He is more in line with Muslim extremists than he is with Muslims. He seems to identify with their cause. I don't know if he is a Muslim extremist. But I don't know what his faith is. He professes to be a Christian, so I take him at his word."

The mild-mannered Cash, who came out of nowhere in 2010 to win a Republican primary in the state's 3rd Congressional District before losing a runoff to Rep. Jeff Duncan, is thought to be a sleeper in the race because of his roots in the anti-abortion movement and his quiet relationship with a network of home-school parents in the conservative Upstate.

An early supporter of Rick Santorum during the 2012 presidential race, Cash, who has the kindly look of a pediatric dentist, frames himself as a defender of "Christianity, capitalism, and the Constitution."

Graham backers seem comfortable with the idea of a runoff against Cash or Bright, neither of whom has demonstrated great fundraising prowess or an ability to appeal to Republicans outside the hard-line conservative base.

Woman opponent could complicate things for Graham

The candidate being watched with most interest by Graham-world is Mace. Despite being just 35 years old and having few detailed policy positions other than a list of conservative platitudes on her website, Mace, a mother hailing from a decorated military family in Charleston, has the most intriguing profile of the bunch.

A serious challenge from a female opponent could complicate matters for Graham if he is forced to go negative in the campaign, said Barry Wynn, a leading Republican fundraiser in Greenville.

"South Carolina voters have historically liked incumbents but will not tolerate attacks on women candidates," Wynn said, pointing to Gov. Haley's GOP primary battle in 2010, when a volley of attacks from her male opponents only drove her poll numbers higher.

It's not hard to imagine the fraught nature of running against a woman in South Carolina. In one conversation this week, a senior Republican in the state, a man, recalled an appearance by Mace at a recent GOP event and described her outfit as "not very becoming."

Looming over the race, albeit from his highly paid perch at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, is former Sen. Jim DeMint, the guiding light of limited-government conservatism for many Republicans here. DeMint and Graham often differed wildly on a number of national issues and they are not close friends, but the two have mostly enjoyed a political truce back home for almost a decade.

DeMint has given no indication that he intends to involve himself in the primary, nor do his protégés seem willing to join the fight to unseat Graham.

"I am going to try to let South Carolina determine who they want for their senator at this time," said Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who has sparred with Graham over national security issues and civil liberties in the Senate. "It will be unlikely I will be involved. I haven't completely closed the door."

Even the whiff of involvement by DeMint rankles Graham allies.

Republican professionals were taken aback last week when the Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee formed by DeMint, unleashed a radio ad accusing Graham of not doing enough to stop the implementation of Obama's health care reform law.

After the radio ad surfaced, Wesley Donehue, a veteran of DeMint's 2004 Senate campaign, took to Facebook to post a television ad from that race in which Graham appeared, defending DeMint after he was coming under withering attack from his Democratic opponent over a controversial tax proposal. DeMint's internal poll numbers were cratering, Donehue said, "and Lindsey stepped up and stopped the bleeding."

"That would have been a much different race if Lindsey hadn't got involved," Donehue said.

What Graham's opponents need most is money, to boost their profiles among the roughly 400,000 Republicans who are expected to vote in the primary and to keep up with Graham's professional organization.

All three of Graham's announced opponents have traveled to Washington to meet with the Club For Growth, a conservative organization eager to topple Graham that often takes sides in Republican primaries, but the group is staking out a wait-and-see approach to this race.

In the meantime, Mace has picked up the support of a well-connected DeMint donor in Greenville, Bill Lowndes, the chairman and CEO of Tindall Corporation. Others in DeMint's network of financial supporters also are keeping an eye on Mace should she become viable.

"I don't see the other guy as being all that terrible," Lowndes said of Graham. "He is just not like Jim DeMint, and I just see her as more like Jim DeMint."

The Graham campaign's near-term playbook is straightforward: Cut through the din and remind voters of his positions that do square with the conservative base. His aides point out that Graham earned a 92 rating from the American Conservative Union in 2012, has an A-rating from the National Rifle Association, and is opposed to abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

Graham is also a colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, not an insignificant biographical detail in a state with eight military bases and a large veteran community.

A well-known workaholic, Graham hasn't had a real political fight on his hands for over a decade, but he harbors an obsession with the minutiae of South Carolina politicking, a fact sometimes obscured by his reputation in Washington as a critical Senate power player and a fixture on the Sunday talk show circuit.

"His job is his lifestyle," Dawson said. "All he does is work."

There's something else Graham's confidantes are fond of pointing out when asked about the prospect of a difficult race: He enjoys a brawl.

His parents ran a small-town pool hall and liquor store in Pickens County, once the heart of South Carolina mill country. Graham was forced to raise his younger sister on his own after his parents died when he was barely 21.

"Lindsey grew up in his family's restaurant and pool room in Central," said one supporter who asked to remain anonymous. "If you back him into a corner, he's likely to break a bottle and come out swinging. He jumps in the big fights in Washington because he's got a little country in him."

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