One morning last spring, a handful of TV producers were running wires up Lindsey Graham's suit as he prepared to address reporters in his downtown Columbia office. "Is it just me or is the world going crazy?" he asked no one in particular. Around him, camera operators focused lenses and checked mic levels. Graham's staff had sent out a blast to local media, inviting them to the U.S. senator's office for interviews. About half a dozen reporters showed up.
Before Graham's arrival, a staffer asked TV reporters if they wished to discuss anything in particular. No one bit, so when the senator arrived, the staffer said they were going to conduct the press conference "Jeopardy style." The senator would choose a topic and just riff for the cameras.
"Are we rolling? Everybody good?" someone asked and got the thumbs up. Facing the reporters, Graham fired off soundbite after soundbite on the controversies of the day. He tore into news that the IRS had targeted conservative groups for extra scrutiny when handling tax forms — "I don't think there's anything more unnerving to the average American than to have their own government turn on them" — and said he'd destroyed a small forest trying to get the White House to produce the names of those who'd survived the attack in Benghazi. He riffed on the Department of Justice going after a Fox News reporter and subpoenaing the phone records of the Associated Press, and then summed up all the scandals together.
"This is a cancer beginning to eat away at the second term of President Obama," Graham said.
These days, Graham is wrestling with the red-meat issues of conservatives as he faces primary challengers back home. Last winter, Graham told a Senate panel he owned an AR-15 assault rifle because he'd need one if society collapsed and gangs started marauding. He's been hawkish on Syria and a stickler on Benghazi. More recently he's threatened to block the president's nominees for Federal Reserve chair and Department of Homeland Security secretary until the White House provides more information on the Benghazi attack. He introduced a proposal to ban abortions after 20 weeks, calling on Senate leaders to vote on it before the 2014 mid-term elections, and two weeks ago he voted against legislation (which passed 64-32) prohibiting businesses from making government employment decisions based on sexuality or gender identity.
Graham is playing to the hardcore conservatives of South Carolina, which shouldn't be too surprising. A recent high-profile poll shows his approval dropping within his own party, and four challengers are hoping to capitalize on his slumping support.
Attorney Bill Connor from Orangeburg jumped into the fray last week with a video announcing his candidacy and criticizing Graham, "You can tell an election's coming when Lindsey Graham is calling himself a conservative again, holding guns on TV, and railing against the president — sometimes — telling anyone who will listen he's against Obamacare and he supports traditional marriage and the right to life, too. But it's just talk."
The knock against Graham is consistent: he's been in Washington too long, he reaches across the aisle, he didn't support the government shutdown over Obamacare, he's for bipartisan immigration reform.
The three other candidates range from extreme conservative to novice politician: Lee Bright is a red-meat slinging state senator from Spartanburg who ran a failed trucking company; Nancy Mace is a Goose Creek political consultant who was the first female Citadel grad; and Richard Cash is an Upstate social conservative activist who owns a fleet of ice cream trucks.
Bright's campaign has been blasting out emails whenever he wins a Tea Party straw poll, snags an endorsement from a group like the Republican Liberty Caucus, or snatches away a high-profile Graham supporter to his side. Recently the chairman of the Fairfield County GOP resigned as a precinct captain for Team Graham to support Bright, lamenting that Graham reaches across the aisle too much. The Laurens County GOP chair recently endorsed Bright citing Graham's votes to confirm liberal Supreme Court justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
Mace, a 35-year-old political novice, has been pitching herself as a citizen legislator who would bring fresh blood to a seat that's been held by two people for nearly 60 years. (Graham won the seat in 2002 after Strom Thurmond stepped down following an eight-term career.) The owner of a media relations firm, Mace has worked for darlings of the liberty movement including Graham's U.S. Senate colleague Tim Scott, Congressman Mick Mulvaney, and Tom Davis. Before she announced her candidacy, she cut ties with the controversial website FITSnews, of which she was a partner.
Cash is a social conservative well known in the Upstate and the home-schooling community. He surprised many when he got into a 2010 GOP primary runoff with Jeff Duncan, who beat Cash to become a congressman.
The only Graham challenger to run a statewide race is Connor, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor three years ago. The crowded field only helps Graham's re-election prospects by splintering the anti-incumbent vote.
This year, Graham has $7 million in his campaign fund, a Mt. Everest of cash compared to the sum of his four rivals, and his effort will be supported by an independent political action committee run by former S.C. GOP chairman Katon Dawson.
"The establishment Republicans in this state worship at the guy's doorstep," says Neal Thigpen, a retired Francis Marion University political scientist.
But his four challengers likely feel bolstered by a recent Winthrop University poll that found Graham's approval rate plummeting among S.C. Republicans from 72 percent in February to 45 percent.
Scott Huffmon, who oversees the Winthrop Poll, says the drop has exposed a vulnerability.
Over the past few years, South Carolina's GOP electorate has moved into a more radical strain of conservatism, electing Nikki Haley as a Tea Party governor in 2010 and libertarian-lite candidates to state House and Senate seats. In January 2012, Republicans smashed 30 years of tradition when they chose Newt Gingrich in the presidential primary over the party's eventual nominee Mitt Romney, the more establishment choice.
"I don't think he was vulnerable before," Huffmon says, referring to Graham's last primary challenge in 2008, which he won handily against Buddy Witherspoon. "So this may be the first time a chink in his armor has been exposed. Whether or not his opponents can slip a knife under the chink in that armor is a whole 'nother question... His voting record, even when he was in the House, was very conservative, and you don't get elected from Upstate South Carolina unless you're extremely conservative and pro-life and all these things," Huffmon says. "But since he has been attacked by the far right within his own party and the Tea Party, I think he's found some issues that appeal to them and has made a point about going toward them."
So far, the challenger who's made the most noise has been Bright. At a recent GOP meeting in Mt. Pleasant, he referred to Graham several times as an "Obama-loving liberal" and claimed he wasn't worried about raising millions to combat the financial shortfall. He might also be the most conservative. Bright has introduced legislation to study whether South Carolina should mint its own currency, was the state co-chair of Michele Bachmann's presidential campaign, and is prone to dropping "Brownshirts" references when talking about the feds.
He doesn't seem very intimated either. "If we get into a runoff with Lindsey Graham, we'll beat him," he said rather confidently.
A runoff against a frothing conservative activist could complicate the incumbent's re-election, says Thigpen. But for it to happen, one of Graham's four challengers would have to catch fire quickly to attract money from a national libertarian-type group looking to take Graham out. What could happen, Thigpen says, is a frontrunner emerges and the others drop out. Otherwise, with a five-person primary and an anti-Graham vote splintered four ways, he doesn't see Graham having much of a problem next fall.
"Why these people hate him so is hard for me to understand," he says, noting Graham's high marks from many of the right-wing organizations that rate senators in Washington. "The guy's never fallen below 90 percent in any of them."
Thigpen adds that Graham's predecessor, Strom Thrumond, dropped low in some of those rankings and no one ever called him a RINO (Republican in name only). "They've just got it in for Lindsey and a lot of times they can't exactly explain why."