COLUMBIA — Here’s how Sen. Lindsey Graham is navigating through six challengers in South Carolina’s Republican primary: good will, shrewd politics and nearly $7 million in campaign cash.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney was thought to be a credible challenger in the June 10 primary, until Graham inspired House leaders to give Mulvaney a seat on the House Financial Services Committee. Mulvaney opted against challenging the two-term senator, saying he doesn’t enter races he can’t win.
Not long ago, Graham looked vulnerable to a primary challenge from conservatives offended by his bipartisan dealmaking and votes for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees.
Graham has benefited from the support of establishment Republicans and allied groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that are focused on gaining the six seats the GOP needs to take control of the Senate.
State Sen. Tom Davis, an aide to former Gov. Mark Sanford, predicted before the Republican convention in 2012 that voters would oust Graham. But Davis said he could do more for his libertarian-leaning causes in the state Senate and that a run against Graham would require a lot of money.
Graham still attracts criticism from libertarian Republicans and tea partyers, but polls show none of his challengers tops 10 percent support with eight weeks to go before the primary.
“While he is definitely a public whipping boy for one subsegment of the party, a lot of people in power recognize how influential he is,” said Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University.
Graham’s re-election is still far from a sure thing. A Winthrop poll found his approval rating among registered voters in South Carolina at 40 percent.
Among Graham’s six GOP opponents, three are lawyers, including one who’s also a minister. There’s one of the most conservative state senators, a man who supported his family with a fleet of ice cream trucks, and the first woman to graduate from the Citadel.
Each is outspoken and keeping alive the idea that Graham is not sufficiently conservative. They have allies among the half-dozen or so of the state’s 46 county Republican parties that have passed resolutions chastising Graham during his second term.
Graham must win a majority of votes in the primary to avoid a runoff. In a seven-way race, that might be difficult. But South Carolina’s primary is open, meaning independents and even some Democrats might vote for the more moderate Graham in the Republican race.
Whenever he isn’t in Washington, Graham is campaigning.
The money the senator has amassed for his race means he can run ads almost daily, host free barbecues and ice cream socials and organize the more than 5,000 precinct captains that he claims into a massive get-out-the-vote effort.
Graham’s campaign leaves little doubt that the lawmaker, who while in the U.S. House helped with President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, is still a conservative. One ad harshly criticizes President Obama’s heath care law and promotes Graham’s bill to allow states to opt out of “Obamacare.” His campaign speech includes a promise to get to the bottom of the attack in Benghazi.
But Graham said what differentiates him from his opponents is that he wants to return to the Senate to improve the country, not just advance the Republican agenda.
“Some want to win this election just to get back power,” Graham said. “But the goal should be to win the election with a purpose.”