The Faith and Freedom BBQ in Anderson, South Carolina, last night featured red, white and blue paper tablecloths and centerpieces tied with gingham ribbon, pulled pork sandwiches, and plenty of Republican voters frustrated with lawmakers in Washington.
Not present was a prominent target of their ire: U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, facing a trio of Republican rivals determined to harness that anger to deny him the party’s nomination next year as he seeks a third Senate term.
While Graham was a no-show, all three of his challengers mingled with more than 900 Republican donors and activists who gathered to hear Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a favorite of the small-government Tea Party movement who was in town to raise money for the local congressman, U.S. Representative Jeff Duncan. While Paul never mentioned his Senate colleague by name, the warm reception he received was an implicit slap at Graham, who has sometimes been at odds with the Kentuckian and is as unpopular with Tea Party activists in his own state as Paul is beloved.
“I’m going to try to let South Carolina determine who they want for their senator,” Paul, 50, told reporters before his speech.
He demurred when asked about endorsing Graham, 58. “At this time I think it’s unlikely I’ll be involved, but I haven’t completely closed the door,” Paul said.
Graham’s bid for re-nomination will test the appeal of his independent streak, as the Tea Party-aligned competitors brand him a soft-spined compromiser and part of an entrenched Republican establishment that doesn’t fully represent South Carolina’s fiscal and social values.
“You’re seeing an electorate that’s very frustrated with what they’re seeing in D.C., and they see Senator Graham as emblematic of the overarching problems facing our country,” said Nancy Mace, so far Graham’s most publicized challenger. She is a public relations executive from Charleston who in 1999 became the first female graduate of the formerly all-male military academy The Citadel and wrote a book about her achievement.
Mace, 35, and Graham’s other opponents criticize him for helping lead the legislative push in Congress to revise U.S. immigration laws in a way that includes a path to citizenship for the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants -- a proposal critics brand as “amnesty” for lawbreakers.
Graham’s detractors, though, may be more critical of what he hasn’t done. They attack him for breaking with Paul as the Kentucky Republican has taken President Barack Obama to task for what he called overreaching national security policies, including the use of drones to target terrorism suspects. And Graham’s foes are livid that he isn’t backing a Republican-led effort to use the threat of a government shutdown to try to compel Obama to defund his signature health-care law.
Richard Cash, a businessman who is also challenging Graham, defines the race as a battle for the soul of the Republican Party, pitting a new generation of Tea Party-backed politicians including Paul -- who won election with help from a former South Carolina senator, Jim DeMint -- against the likes of Graham.
“The Republican Party’s got to decide which direction it wants to go -- do they want to go with the people that Senator DeMint helped to bring to Washington, or do they want to stay with a moderate like Senator Lindsey Graham,” Cash says. “If the Republican Party wants to moderate itself into irrelevancy, they’ve got a champion in Senator Graham.”
State Senator Lee Bright, the third challenger, said Graham is “like a piñata” -- a target for multiple blows because of the positions he’s taken in the Senate.
“He’s never really been through the wringer -- he’s never had this kind of opposition” Bright, 53, said of Graham, a former House member who easily survived a 2008 primary challenge with 67 percent of the vote.
Allies and critics agree that Graham has major advantages that will make him difficult to beat in the June 10, 2014, primary. These include broad name recognition, a record of constituent service, and solid appeal among active and retired members of the military who are a key constituency in his state.
He also has ample financial resources, with $6.3 million in his campaign account as of June 30, according to Federal Election Commission records. A super political action committee also is raising money on his behalf.
“We’re not surprised that there’s spirited opposition, and I’m not surprised that some of the Tea Party’s spirited sentiment around the country has its eye firmly set on Lindsey, but we formed a super-PAC to make sure the out-of-state interests don’t come in and drown out the voices of South Carolina voters,” said Katon Dawson, a former state Republican Party chairman who heads the West Main Street Values PAC.
While the group had only collected $78,000 as of June 30, Dawson said it would “be properly funded and prepared to meet those resources and those criticisms with the facts about Lindsey’s record.”
Graham, who declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this story, is campaigning on high ratings from groups such as the American Conservative Union and a record of advocating for South Carolina in the Senate.
“Lindsey Graham is a strong fiscal, social, and national security conservative with the record to back it up,” his campaign spokesman, Tate Zeigler, said in a statement. Graham “is a conservative problem-solver willing to tackle the tough issues,” he said.
His allies express cautious optimism. “I suspect Senator Graham’s going to be fine, but he’s got his work cut out for him,” says J. Warren Tompkins, a veteran South Carolina Republican strategist who has advised the incumbent.
Mace, he added, “presents a challenge that he cannot take lightly.”
Tompkins said money from outside the state will probably flow to one candidate and that’s likely to be Mace, whose profile as a young, fresh-faced businesswoman and mother with military ties will allow her to argue she’s better-suited to represent the state than Graham.
Still, Tompkins said, Graham “will be able to push back, and the question is, how well does she hold up to the pressures of running a statewide campaign?”
Graham has been losing support this year from his party’s base, according to public polls. A Winthrop Poll conducted April 6-14 of registered South Carolina voters showed that among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, his approval rating was 58 percent, down from 72 percent in February.
“They want to fire Lindsey Graham -- I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” said David Woodard, a political scientist at South Carolina’s Clemson University who formerly advised Republicans in the state, including the senator. While Graham benefits from not having drawn a well-known challenger, he also “hasn’t done anything to boost his lovability or electability,” Woodard said.
The Senate Conservatives Fund -- founded by DeMint, who quit the Senate to lead the Washington-based Heritage Foundation -- has been running radio advertisements blasting Graham for comments calling Republican threats to shut down the government over funding the health-care law “a bridge too far.”
Another group, ForAmerica Inc., is running commercials comparing Graham to a chicken for failing to back the effort. A life-sized cardboard cutout of the senator is to appear tonight at a town hall in North Charleston staged by FreedomWorks, which is criticizing Republican lawmakers who aren’t making themselves available for constituent questions this month during their summer break.
Democrats, whose eventual nominee likely would be the underdog against whoever triumphs in the Republican Senate primary, nonetheless are watching Graham’s developing primary battle with mounting pleasure, citing it as a clear example of Republican divisions that will harm the party’s electoral fortunes elsewhere.
Graham’s primary race will “highlight extremism in the Republican Party and probably be embarrassing to Republicans,” said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “It shows that no Republican incumbent is safe, and that in order to stay in office, Republicans will be forced to take far-right positions.”
Tea Party forces in South Carolina know they have a better shot at ousting Graham if they are united, so they have begun discussing holding some sort of unofficial pre-primary contest among his rivals to anoint a single challenger.
“‘Anybody but Lindsey’ is what you hear out there right now, but hopefully all the groups will come together statewide and we can all make a decision as to which candidate we’re going to actually support and put our votes behind,” said Janet Spencer, 65, chairman of the Myrtle Beach-based Carolina Patriots. “We’re going to have a tough road -- no question about that. We would love to see him primaried out -- knock him off completely -- and we hope to have that coming together before the actual primary.”
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