Graham Faces Enmity From Right

Posted February 28, 2007 at 6:26pm

Despite taking moderate positions on certain issues that conservatives loathe, Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) long march to Election Day 2008 may be a lonely one.

Conservative Web sites in South Carolina have begged Republicans like state Treasurer Thomas Ravenel and U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins to challenge Graham in the GOP primary, but neither seems inclined to do so. And Democrats don’t appear likely to produce a top-tier challenger.

“Folks in the conservative wing of Republican party are extremely upset with some of the stances that [Graham] has taken,” said one state GOP operative. “But it’d be tough to beat him.”

Graham, who ran unopposed in his first Senate Republican primary in 2002, took 54 percent of the vote against Democrat Alex Sanders that year to succeed retiring eight-term Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).

But the outcome was hardly happenstance. In the run-up to the 2002 election, the operative remarked, Graham seized on his popularity among the state’s GOP political establishment, proved an effective fundraiser and made quick work of his nomination.

“[Graham] was smart and he sewed it up early,” the operative said. “He cleared the deck in the primary — how often do you see that happen in a seat that’s only open every 50 years?”

With the South Carolina Senate primary more than a year away, some Palmetto State Republicans say Graham is setting the stage for a repeat. With $2.6 million in cash on hand as of Dec. 31 — all told, more than half of what Sanders raised in 2002 — Republicans maintain that the list of potential conservative challengers in the state who could raise enough money, or write a check to mount a credible challenge against Graham, has only two names: Wilkins and Ravenel.

Ravenel, who was elected treasurer in November, is a wealthy real estate developer and son of former Rep. Arthur Ravenel Jr. (R-S.C.). He ran a close third in the open-seat GOP primary that now-Sen. Jim DeMint won in 2004, and despite the loss, drew many admirers.

“When Ravenel ran for the Senate, he was a young, successful businessman,” the GOP operative said. “He was talking about the kind of things the presidential candidates are talking about now.”

Ravenel’s popularity among hard-core conservatives — as well as their disdain for Graham — seems apparent in Web sites like www.tomravenel.com, which encourages Republican voters to urge the treasurer to throw his hat in the Senate ring. One post reads: “How dare Lindsey Graham only vote with the GOP 95 percent of the time instead of 100 percent.”

But Ravenel already has ruled out a Senate run not just in 2008, but for the better part of the next decade.

“It’s not anything I’m considering,” Ravenel said in an interview Wednesday. “I’m here until 2010 … and I’d never consider running against Sen. Jim DeMint.”

Wilkins, a prominent fundraiser for President Bush, was the Speaker of the South Carolina state House for more than a decade before moving to Ottawa in 2005.

Still, he has no intentions of moving back anytime soon. In a telephone conversation Wednesday, Wilkins said there is no chance he will challenge Graham in 2008, but he left open the possibility of returning to politics once his term is up.

“I’m here to serve my president and my country in Canada and I plan on doing that,” Wilkins said. “I’m well past [considering a 2008 Senate run] — I’ll be in Canada until January ’09.”

But he added: “After fulfilling this obligation … I certainly wouldn’t shut the door.”

Recent Republican polling suggests that Graham’s controversial stances on immigration and federal court nominees — he was one of the bipartisan “Gang of 14” who brokered a Senate compromise on the nominations — have not hurt him among the state’s GOP faithful.

“Our polling shows that Lindsey in the most popular politician in South Carolina among Republicans,” said Richard Quinn, a state GOP strategist who has worked for Graham.

Despite criticisms from the right, Quinn added, “he’s got a pretty solid conservative voting record.”

But Graham’s voting record has swung considerably since arriving in the Senate in 2003. That year, he voted with his party and the president between 95 percent and 96 percent of the time. In 2006, he voted with Senate Republicans 82 percent of the time.

“I think Lindsey is pretty safe,” Quinn said. In addition to his high poll numbers, Quinn said Graham’s fundraising abilities “should be a pretty strong deterrent to potential opposition.” And, ironically, his perceived moderate views — even if voters don’t agree — may carry some currency.

“South Carolina has a long history of admiring Senators with an independent streak,” Quinn said.

Still, according the the GOP operative who did not want to be named, “conservatives in South Carolina tend to be more conservative than your national Republicans.” So there may still be room for a candidate to tap into conservative frustrations with Graham.

“There will be a call for a conservative Republican candidate,” the operative predicted. “Whether it’s a credible candidate or a conservative that just wants to make a point is yet to be determined.”