For the second time this month, a local South Carolina Republican Party committee is expected to decide soon whether to formally scold Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) for supporting the Senate’s now-stalled immigration overhaul proposal, putting the once-popular lawmaker on the defensive and upping the ante for a potential 2008 primary challenger.
“The frustration [with Graham] is real,” said one state Republican source, who added that the state’s large conservative base is “just searching for someone” to challenge Graham in next year’s primary.
The Spartanburg County Republican Party is expected to vote Aug. 23 on a resolution officially rebuking Graham for supporting his chamber’s immigration bill. Criticism of the reform package, which was shelved last month after failing to gather the 60 votes necessary to cut off debate in the Senate, has raged throughout the country and particularly in states such as South Carolina, where AM talk-radio hosts have bloodied the Senate proposal and said it tries to reward those who have broken the law.
Rick Beltram, chairman of the Spartanburg County Republican Party, said he doubts a resolution criticizing Graham’s stance on immigration would pass by a wide margin. But should the measure come up for a vote, Beltram already has developed a game plan to manage what likely will be an angry lot.
“This being as explosive as it is, we would ask for a secret ballot so 30 or 40 Rep. Ron Paul [R-Texas] people yelling in the background wouldn’t have an influence on the election,” Beltram said.
Last week, the Greenville County Republican Party passed a resolution censuring Graham for continuing to “adamantly support legalization of illegal immigrants.” In addition to immigration, local party officials reprimanded Graham for supporting campaign finance reform and participating two years ago in the “Gang of 14,” a bipartisan Senate group that negotiated a compromise on controversial federal judicial nominations.
The resolution also criticized Graham’s recent statements before the National Council of La Raza, which were captured by cable news networks.
“We are not going to run people down. We are not going to scapegoat people. We are going to tell the bigots to shut up and we’re going to get this right,” Graham told the crowd.
Samuel Harms, the Greenville GOP chairman whose group adopted a resolution in 2001 “opposing any legalization of illegal immigration,” said Graham’s speech to La Raza was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” He added that the resolution was “about informing people that Lindsey Graham called the good people of Greenville bigots and that we need to be told to shut up.”
A successful censure vote next week in Spartanburg may signal a widening opportunity for a potential Graham challenger next year. So far, Graham faces only token primary opposition and last month he dodged a potential bullet when popular state Treasurer Thomas Ravenel (R), who was considering a run, was arrested for allegedly distributing cocaine.
Democrats have yet to find a challenger to the first-term Senator.
After recapturing some of the love lost during his Gang of 14 days, a GOP source said Graham’s recent bruising for supporting the immigration bill may convince some conservative party activists that an opportunity is again at hand. Also, Graham’s support of tanking presidential candidate Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) campaign, the source said, is not helping his cause.
“The immigration issue reignited the ember,” the source said.
Still, with Graham sitting on $4 million in the bank, potential primary challengers face a steep uphill battle contending with an incumbent who may have twice that total squirrelled away before the year’s end. Lt. Gov. André Bauer (R), frequently said to be mulling a run, told Roll Call last week that he has not ruled out the possibility of challenging Graham.
“I would never say never,” Bauer said. “But I don’t have any plans to run against him.”
But Bauer does plan to appear at the Aug. 23 meeting of the Spartanburg County GOP.
Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, said that while it’s unusual for party activists to go to such extremes with federal officeholders, the immigration issue has struck a nerve with the party’s base.
“You can’t bluff it, you can’t beat around the bush about it, it’s there and it’s real,” he said. “Lindsey has a different philosophy on immigration and there’s no question it’s hurting him.”
For now, Graham appears to be resting on his conservative laurels and betting that the controversy will pass. Graham currently is out of the country, his campaign said Friday, but will return to the state to campaign later this month.
“Lindsey Graham is a strong conservative voice in the U.S. Senate with a lifetime conservative rating of 91,” according to a statement provided by spokesman Scott Farmer. “He will seek re-election based on his conservative voting record and willingness to tackle the hard problems facing our nation.”
Whit Ayers, a Republican pollster, said immigration undoubtedly is a challenging issue, but one that plays to Graham’s strengths. Even more, despite the current controversy, Ayers said voters ultimately respect lawmakers who take principled positions.
“Sen. Graham is a remarkedly adept politician who will be able to be very persuasive about the reasons why he’s done the things he’s done,” Ayers said. “I don’t think we would expect our politicians to be in lock step on every single issue that comes up.”
He added: “There’s no question that Lindsey Graham is right where most Republican voters in South Carolina are on God, guns, gays and taxes.”