COLUMBIA — The six Republican challengers trying to beat U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham tried to position themselves as the best choice to replace the two-term incumbent Saturday night during their only debate.
Graham spent his time defending his 12 years in the Senate, saying his challengers are too conservative and would threaten Republicans’ chances to win back the Senate.
With Tuesday’s primary nearing, Graham and his challengers mostly stuck to their campaign themes. Graham was attacked on policy and his willingness to at least listen to Democrats and President Obama, but no one made it personal.
“If you didn’t support Obama’s agenda or amnesty, we wouldn’t be here tonight,” state Sen. Lee Bright said.
The one-hour debate didn’t give any of the seven candidates a lot of time to expand on their policy ideas. Graham’s challengers spent their time reminding voters in what areas they didn’t think he was conservative enough.
Graham largely ignored any barbs and explained what he has done for 12 years and his plans if he gets a third term.
“One principle I have that I try not to abandon is not to worry so much about me, as my country and my party. I don’t take the path of least resistance,” Graham said.
He defended his decisions to support finding solutions to immigrants who come to the country illegally. He also defended his votes to confirm Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, saying elections have consequences and that his job as a senator isn’t to vote on nominees strictly on their judicial ideologies.
All six of his opponents said that was wrong,
with Columbia pastor Det Bowers disagreeing most vigorously.
“A litmus test for a Supreme Court justice is right to life,” Bowers said.
Upstate businessman Richard Cash took Graham to task for what he characterized as betraying conservative principles by compromising with Democrats.
“It doesn’t matter if you get something done if you’re doing the wrong thing,” Cash said.
Lowcountry businesswoman Nancy Mace said Graham is too entrenched in government and that the only way to improve things is to vote him out.
“This is not a referendum on the core of the Republican Party,” Mace said. “It is a referendum on Washington.”
Orangeburg County attorney Bill Connor said people who don’t think tea party Republicans can work with Democrats are selling them short.
“Democrats will come along when they see where it will bring the country,” Connor said.
So far, Graham has kept his challengers at bay. Polls have shown he is near the 50 percent threshold he must reach to avoid a runoff. He has raised more than $12 million since his last re-election bid in 2008. None of his opponents have passed the
$1 million mark.
“If you truly are a conservative, then it is not necessary to spend several million dollars in advertising to prove it,” said rival Benjamin Dunn, a Columbia lawyer.
But all of Graham’s challengers insist they can get into a runoff and consolidate all the opposition against him. They are taking inspiration from Mississippi, where Sen. Thad Cochran finished in second place and was forced into a runoff as he sought a sixth term against challenger Chris McDaniel, who attacks Cochran as being not conservative enough and too cozy with power brokers in Washington.
“The rest of the nation is looking at us,” Bright said. “Is South Carolina going to make its stand?”