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Crowded S.C. Primary Poses Challenge for Graham

Crowded S.C. Primary Poses Challenge for Graham

By Scott Conroy - August 3, 2013

Though no one thinks it'll be easy, the word is out among ambitious South Carolina conservatives: Lindsey Graham really is susceptible to defeat in 2014.

Newcomer Nancy Mace and libertarian-leaning state Sen. Lee Bright are set to become the second and third GOP candidates to announce their intentions to run against the second-term senator, and political watchers in the Palmetto State believe the field may expand even further in the coming weeks.

At first glance, when gaming out Graham’s chances of surviving a multi-candidate primary and going on to win re-election, the logic seems simple: the more competitors, the merrier.

For a lawmaker who has long raised the ire of some rank-and-file conservatives with his deal-brokering and occasional breeches from Republican orthodoxy, there is a benefit to splitting the Tea Party vote into as many parts as possible.

But this line of reasoning has a potential flaw: South Carolina electoral law stipulates that a candidate must win at least 50 percent of the primary vote to avoid a runoff, and Graham’s chances of reaching that threshold could become even more difficult with additional names on the ballot.

And in a one-on-one runoff , all bets are off for Graham, who would likely have to fight tooth and nail for his political survival.

Former South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson -- who runs a super PAC supporting the already well-funded incumbent -- explained in stark terms the challenge ahead: “Fifty percent in a three- or four-person race is a hard number to get to. It just is. My expectation would be a runoff.”

The pro-Graham super PAC, West Main Street Values PAC, has raised just over $78,000 so far this year, but Dawson maintained that the group would be “well prepared” to compete next year against the large sums of outside money expected to arrive from conservative groups hoping to defeat Graham.

Nonetheless, Dawson has been sending a message to the senator’s allies in Washington and nationwide that it won’t be easy for Graham to win this one.

“What leads to heartache in Republican primaries is small turnout, which makes it dicey,” he said.

To understand just how dicey things can get for Republicans branded with the “establishment” label these days, one need only look back to Ted Cruz’s once unlikely election to the Senate last year in Texas.

When incumbent Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson decided to retire rather than seek a fourth term, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst was pegged as the clear favorite to succeed her. And in the crowded primary in which six Republican candidates earned at least 1 percent of the vote, Dewhurst bested Cruz by a hefty 11-point margin (45 percent to 34 percent).

But in their runoff two months later, the Tea Party-backed Cruz easily defeated his opponent (57 percent to 43 percent) to win the nomination on the way to a general election victory in the deep-red state.

It’s a playbook that many hard-right South Carolina Republicans are increasingly confident can be replicated to unseat Graham.

“I think that Lindsey Graham is vulnerable,” said state Sen. Tom Davis, a top figure in the South Carolina GOP’s libertarian wing. “The energy in the Republican Party is moving in a direction opposite from where people like Lindsey and John McCain and some of the more establishment Republicans stand.”

While Davis declined to cite a challenger he considers the most viable, he did single out Mace as someone who enjoys deep connections with “the liberty grassroots” in the state, in part due to her early endorsement and vocal advocacy for Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign.

As the first female to graduate from The Citadel, the 35-year-old mother of two also has a ready-made story to tell. Still, the politically untested Mace would have her work cut out for her in a campaign against Graham, even if it were to go to a runoff.

“I don’t know Nancy, but I think it’s going to be particularly tough for her-- or anyone taking on Lindsey -- who has never held statewide office or even run for statewide office, to try to unseat a sitting United States senator, who, for the most part, has a pretty strong track record and also deep resources in the bank,” said South Carolina Republican operative Mike Campbell, a Graham supporter. “You can’t just run on sound bites. There has to be depth there.”

Graham’s full-throated advocacy for the immigration reform bill that passed the Senate earlier this year will no doubt be among his greatest liabilities in the primary, as the issue is a juicy slab of red meat for his opponents to bite into.

Polling in the still-developing primary race has been scant, but a Winthrop survey showed that Graham’s approval rating among South Carolina Republicans had dipped from 71.6 percent in February to 57.5 percent in April.

While that slippage isn’t grounds for panic, especially considering all of Graham’s inherent advantages, the current climate is sparking cautious optimism for his many vocal detractors in the state. 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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