COLUMBIA, S.C. - U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham overcame Republican misgivings about his role in failed immigration legislation to easily win a second term against a little-known and underfunded Democratic challenger.
The Associated Press called the race for Graham shortly polls closed at 7 p.m. The call was based on an analysis of voter interviews, conducted for The Associated Press by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International. With 32 percent of precincts reporting, Graham had 60 percent of the vote to Conley's 40 percent.
"Number one, I'm grateful - appreciative - to have a second term," Graham said in a telephone interview. He said he'll continue reaching out to Democrats and mainstream conservatives as he returns to Washington. "I'll just keep on being me."
Last year, Graham's explanation of his support for immigration law overhauls drew boos from Republicans and brought out a primary challenger. Graham survived, putting together enough Republican and independent voters who were willing to move beyond that.
"I voted for Graham because he's a Republican, even though I've been a little disappointed with him," said Bobby Cannon, a 53-year-old heating and air conditioning salesman from Columbia.
Graham, a 53-year-old Seneca native, was so confident of the night's win that he did two things unheard of from statewide GOP candidates: He left the state after casting an absentee ballot so he could be in Arizona at GOP presidential nominee John McCain's side, and he spent heavily on mailings and radio ads targeting Democrats for support.
Those actions irked Democrat Bob Conley's campaign.
"I think it's rather disgusting," Conley campaign manager Lee Griggs said. "I think he's being rude and out of line not staying in South Carolina to thank those voters and it shows how little he does care about this state."
Griggs said Conley would not comment until returns were tabulated.
Conley, a 43-year-old North Myrtle Beach engineer and flight instructor, got his start in politics with an unsuccessful bid as a Republican for an Indiana state legislative seat. He then bolted for the Reform Party. Earlier this year, he was with the GOP as a Horry County executive committee member supporting Ron Paul for president. Later, he became a Democrat and won a primary to face Graham in the general election.
A Graham mailing cited those convoluted political roots and Conley's dream ticket - Pat Buchanan and Paul - and questioned his leanings. "And he calls himself a Democrat? Hardly." In a radio ad, Graham's campaign noted that U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the state's most influential Democrat, had said in a radio interview he wouldn't be voting for Conley. The call encouraged straight-ticket Democrats to pick Graham.
Graham campaign manager Scott Farmer said Graham was doing what any smart candidate would do: reaching out to all voters. "In any general election, you always seek every voter you possibly can," Farmer said.
Republicans have talked for years about reaching out, he noted. Graham is "walking the walk," Farmer said.
But Conley may have done best with straight-ticket voters, even those with misgivings like Don Sanders, a 53-year-old man whose disabilities had him voting curbside in Columbia. "He was just the nominee," Sanders said.
Marie Crawford said she voted for Conley in Columbia because she wasn't happy with Graham's support of McCain and President Bush. "I'm just ready to see more Democrats in office to see if we can get some of these messes cleaned up," said Crawford, a 57-year-old education consultant.
Some Republican voters picked Conley for other reasons. "I just felt like we needed a change in Washington," said Debbie Galin, a 56-year-old Columbia homemaker.
But voters lauded Graham's work on the war in Iraq, immigration and the economy and said he deserves another stint.
"I know he supports the troops. He also supports John McCain. He's just a good conservative," said Renee Lindquist, a 41-year-old homemaker who voted in an upscale neighborhood in suburban Columbia.
Conley never posed a serious challenge to Graham. Heading into Election Day, Conley's campaign said it had $23,628 for his bid. Graham's Federal Election Commission report showed he had spent $3.6 million and still had $3.5 million on hand.
In a primary matching political unknowns, Conley won by just over 1,000 votes. Graham, a regular on the Sunday news talk show circuit, didn't have to reintroduce himself to voters.
In their only debate last month, Conley seized on the U.S. role in Iraq and Afghanistan, criticizing Graham's support for continued military presence there.
"What we're doing is we're using our military in some kind of police state, nation building over in the Middle East," Conley said at the time. "They don't need an American occupying force there."
Graham, a U.S. Air Force Reserve colonel who is the only member of the Senate serving in the Guard or Reserve, has visited Iraq repeatedly and disagreed with the challenger.
"The surge has worked. Our troops are coming home. And we're going to leave in victory and we're going to have an ally in Iraq and not a dictator called Saddam Hussein," he said during the debate.
Graham knows he'll return to a Senate expected to swing further to Democrat's control.
"If they try to increase the size of government and taxes in a way that will hurt the economy I will be a very formidable opponent," Graham said. "I'll reach out to my Democratic colleagues to see if we can find solutions to problems like social security, Medicare - the etitlements - that both parties have to work together to reach a solution. There will be some issues that no one party can solve by itself."