Graham defeats conservative challengers, avoids runoff

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Story highlights

  • Five states held primaries on Tuesday
  • In South Carolina, Sen. Lindsey Graham avoided a primary runoff
  • Graham faced a divided opposition in his primary bid

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina won his primary showdown on Tuesday, easily topping the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff.

His victory over a crowded field on the right stands in contrast to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's defeat in Virginia's 7th Congressional District, where GOP challenger Dave Brat upset the seven-term Republican for the party's nomination.

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Graham's opposition was fractured heading into the primary. State Sen. Lee Bright came in a distant second, followed by five other challengers who all registered in the single digits.

"Leadership and problem solving comes with some political risk. You get a bunch of people running against you, but I'm here to tell you, it's very much worth it," Graham said in his victory speech.

In red-state South Carolina, Graham will be considered the strong favorite in November's general election, when he faces Democratic state Sen. Brad Hutto, who easily won his party's primary.

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South Carolina is not Mississippi

Graham's victory also stood in contrast to Republican Sen. Thad Cochran's fight for his political life in Mississippi. Last week, Cochran was forced into a runoff against a challenger backed by the tea party.

But for Graham, any comparison with Cochran was short lived, even though many tea party activists and other grassroots conservatives in South Carolina despise him and other local organizations in the state have censured him in recent years.

Graham had some advantages heading into the contest: He had a massive war chest -- around $8 million cash on hand, which gave him a huge campaign cash advantage over his primary opponents -- and outside groups have steered clear of the race, unlike in Mississippi where establishment and tea party groups fought.

South Carolina Republican consultant Joel Sawyer told CNN that Graham was facing off "against an incredibly weak field of competitors, and of course he benefited by having the 'not Lindsey' vote split among several folks."

"Second, to Lindsey's credit, he ran a great campaign. I think the assumption among a lot of people was that he'd solely wage an air war, but I've been impressed with the way he also ran a traditional, grassroots-focused campaign in addition to a compelling broadcast message. And Lindsey himself spent a lot of time on the ground here holding events and interacting one-on-one with voters," Sawyer added.

Graham debated his opponents for the first and only time this past weekend.

They slammed him over his 2008 vote in favor of the Wall Street bailout, his votes in favor of President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominations, and especially for his support of immigration reform.

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Graham was a member of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" senators who pushed immigration reform through the chamber last year. The bill was never taken up by the GOP-controlled House.

Heading into Tuesday's contest, polls showed Graham close to the 50% threshold. He spent Monday on a bus tour through the conservative, voter-rich upstate region.

In his final campaign commercial before the primary, Graham touted his conservative credentials, which he said included support for "building the Keystone pipeline, opposing Obamacare, looking for answers on Benghazi, standing up for our military."

And in the ad, which his campaign said was a six-figure statewide buy on TV, radio and digital, Graham said he is a "conservative leader you can count on to get things done."

South Carolina and Virginia were among five states that held primaries on Tuesday.

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