For a while it wasn’t looking good at all for the prospects of tea party-backed candidates winning GOP primaries in US Senate and House races across the nation in 2014. Establishment moderates John Cornyn in Texas, John Boehner in Ohio, and Thom Tillis in NC all recently won their primaries against tea party opponents. In the case of Cornyn and Boehner it was in large measure due to no real credible candidates challenging them. However, in the case of Mitch McConnell-backed Tillis in the NC Senate primary, Tillis did face a very solid showdown from Rand Paul/tea party-back Greg Brannon. But Tillis won out in the end.
Breaking what seemed to be a winning streak by moderate republicans, on Tuesday in Nebraska, tea party-backed candidate Ben Sasse handily defeated Shane Osborn who had strong backing from moderate GOP Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain. With almost all precincts reporting Tuesday evening, Sasse had more than doubled Osborn’s votes – Sasse 43%, Dinsdale 23%, and Osborn coming in third at just 22%.
Graham told Breitbart News in April that “I’ve given him (Osborn) money,” adding, “I think John McCain’s going out to help him, he’s a great candidate.”
There are also recent signs that Eric Cantor’s tea party challenger is gaining real momentum having gained the support of many conservative groups and leaders as of late, perhaps indicating a surge in tea party momentum nationally.
With Osborn having been heavily backed by Lindsey Graham in Nebraska, yet losing by such a large margin to a tea party candidate, it raises the question of whether Graham might be in real trouble in his own primary coming up on June 10. Graham is facing a primary challenge from 6 candidates.
Graham is well entrenched in SC, and conventional wisdom has been that with a massive war chest combined with the power of incumbency, Graham is largely invulnerable. But according all polling over the last several months, Graham remains well under 50%, with a recent Winthrop poll putting Graham at a 42.8% approval rating. However, no recent impendent scientific polling is available showing where Graham’s opponents stand, and two of the challengers entered the race in recent weeks just ahead of the filing deadline. So the race is by all measures very much in flux with just under four weeks to the primary.
Most of Graham’s loudest detractors have come from among the tea party throughout the years, and have largely been ignored by Graham and his allies. But Graham also faces a serious and growing dissatisfaction within the mainstream of the South Carolina Republican Party itself. On Monday, Charleston county became the 9th county GOP body in the state to pass an official censure against Graham for reasons stemming from voting for the conformation of ultra leftist Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, to voting for cloture on Obamacare funding.
Graham has largely based his electoral support over the years on his popularity among military/veteran voters. South Carolina has an unusually high number of veterans per capita, and the state touts several military bases and training facilities. But among Graham’s challengers is a decorated combat veteran of 23 years, Lt Colonel Bill Connor.
Connor has spent his military career as an infantry officer – Airborne Ranger. He volunteered for combat duty in Afghanistan in 2007 where he served as Senor US Advisor in epicenter of the Afghan war – Helmand Province, and laid the groundwork for the Marines to come in and stage the US surge. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his service there. Connor currently serves in the Army Reserves as Director of the Army’s Command and General Staff College (ILE) in SC, and just received promotion orders to full bird Colonel. He has a strong record of foreign policy experience and sits on the US Counterinsurgency Advisory Team.
In addition to strong military/veteran support, Connor also has a growing base of tea party support, both statewide and nationally including the endorsement of tea party icon Maj General Paul Vallely, founder of Stand Up America. Connor’s popularity with the tea party movement came as a result of having been one of the state’s leading tea party figures from the very first tea party rally ever held in SC in back in 2009 where he spoke to a crowd of around 3,000 not long after having returned home from Combat. Connor has remianed a major figure in the SC tea party movement since. He is known for being an unapologetic conservative constitutionalist not afraid to take on the GOP establishment which fuels his popularity among tea party conservatives.
Among Graham’s other challengers is businessman Richard Cash who is known as a strong social conservative and has good support among the pro-life movement. Cash has run a slow but steady under-the-radar race thus far.
State Senator Lee Bright is a firebrand Ron Paul libertarian and very popular among the minority Ron Paul wing of the tea party. Bright has a very zealous grassroots support base and showed early signs of leading the field of challengers. But Bright has suffered from very low fundraising, and in the last two quarters has raised and has reported cash on hand totaling less than one fifth of any other individual Graham challenger.
Det Bowers is a former trial lawyer and democrat operative best known for being the campaign Chair for the Michael Dukakis campaign, as well as running the campaigns of other liberal democrats. Bowers spent the last decade as a pastor before leaving the pastorate to pursue politics as a republican in the GOP primary against Graham. Though he has a support base among more moderate republicans, Bowers is largely mistrusted by conservatives and the tea party because of his democrat past and lack of republican credentials.
Nancy Mace is best known for becoming the first female graduate of the Citadel and being the co-founder/co-owner of FITSnews – an Alex Jones type libertarian shock blog in SC. Mace garnered a lot of attention when she first entered the race, but has suffered criticism after reportedly avoiding the majority of candidate forums and debates.
Rounding off the list of Graham challengers is late entry Benjamin Dunn, a lawyer and veteran who is basically unknown across the state. Dunn reported having raised a mere $10,000 during the last quarter which would not even cover his $10,500 candidate filing fee. Dunn is not expected to be a factor in the race.
Some fear that with so many challengers in the race that it will result in a default win for Graham by splitting the tea party and “anti-Graham” vote. But unlike many other states, SC has a 50% plus one vote threshold in order to win a primary. So having multiple challengers in many ways helps to assure the possibility of a runoff by holding Graham below 50% by each candidate pulling various segments of the vote away from Graham.
With Graham polling below 50%, and Osborn having been crushed in Nebraska after being backed by Graham, Graham could easily wake up on June 11th in a runoff with one of his challengers. Historically runoffs do not favor incumbents.
Each Graham challenger touts certain strengths and weaknesses, but Bill Connor having been the only candidate in the race to previously run for statewide office, combined with his ability to put together a base of support including military, tea party, and Christian conservatives would equate to a very serious problem for Graham if he faced Connor one on one in a runoff.
The national tea party and conservative groups have not gotten involved in the race against Graham in a big way as of yet. But after coming off of a major win with Sasse, and Sasse’s opponent’s loss being so tied to Graham, they may begin to take a closer look at just how vulnerable Graham is, especially if he is forced into a runoff with a strong challenger like Connor.
One way other the other, the eye of national attention will now take focus on South Carolina as Lindsey Graham tries to ward off tea party conservatives and their bid to unseat him.