Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief early last week.
Graham, who has taken heat at home recently for his relatively moderate positions on immigration and judicial nominations, has glanced periodically over his shoulder in recent months for signs that a viable conservative would try to capitalize on GOP discontent and challenge him next year.
Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer? Nope. South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson? Pass. David Wilkins, U.S. ambassador to Canada? Not a chance.
State Treasurer Thomas Ravenel? Awaiting sentencing on cocaine charges.
But last Tuesday, Graham’s once-solitary jog to his second term took a turn when former Republican National Committeeman Buddy Witherspoon said he will try to corral conservative frustration in the Palmetto State in an effort to oust Graham.
Witherspoon, a Columbia dentist, looks like a credible challenger on paper.
But he is primarily known for his alleged ties to the St. Louis-based Council of Conservative Citizens. The Southern Poverty Law Center characterizes the organization on its Web site as a “white supremacist” group.
Witherspoon’s primary aim is serving as a vehicle for GOP grumbling over Graham’s perceived moderate stances on federal court nominations and on what to do about the 12 million undocumented workers in the United States. It is widely held that conservative contrarians in South Carolina make up roughly 30 percent of the GOP primary vote.
Last year, incumbent Republican Gov. Mark Sanford ran head-on into that voting bloc, losing 35 percent to political unknown Oscar Lovelace.
“There’s a great deal of concern out there about the representation South Carolina is getting,” Witherspoon told Roll Call. “Immigration could be the top issue.”
“The bipartisan effort of the Gang of 14? … Guess they decided they knew better than everybody else including the president,” Witherspoon mused. “When you join the Gang of 14, you’re joining the Beltway-Washington, D.C., people. … It’s just not in the best interest of South Carolinians.”
On the immigration question, Witherspoon prefers shutting down the current system, closing off the borders and then beginning discussions of what comes next.
“I and most South Carolinians support the legal immigration system we’ve had through the years,” he said. “There’s certainly more [immigrants] here than we planned. … And it looks like we need a timeout.”
Earlier this year, the National Council of La Raza, the country’s largest Hispanic civil rights group, formally acknowledged Graham’s work on immigration at its annual awards program.
GOP Party Chairman Dawson agreed with Witherspoon that immigration remains a controversial issue among conservatives in the state. Still, he said, one issue likely will not carry the day in the June 2008 primary
“There are a lot of single-issue voters; certainly the base speaks loud and clear,” Dawson said. “[But] overwhelmingly Republicans will come back home” to Graham.
“The immigration [issue] gets older by the day. … You’re starting to hear some solutions to the debate, which has certainly helped Sen. John McCain [R-Ariz.] nationwide and it’s certainly helped Lindsey Graham,” Dawson added. “You hear John McCain and Lindsey Graham [saying] ‘I heard you loud and clear: We’re going to enforce the borders and enforce the laws that are on the books.’”
Graham’s campaign was not available for comment before press time Wednesday.
Witherspoon declined to provide his early fundraising numbers or indicate whether he can write his campaign a hefty check to compete with the $4.2 million Graham has in the bank. He called aligning himself with a national group like the Federation for Immigration Reform a “possibility,” but he would not provide specifics.
“We don’t have anything of a war chest like [Graham] has,” Witherspoon said. “I may not have the money in the bank, but I have the attention and the ears of quite a few million people in South Carolina.”
A Republican source suggested Witherspoon is Graham’s ideal electoral sparring partner: appealing to many hard-right GOP voters — who would never cast ballots for Graham — but too controversial to ever seriously threaten the incumbent.
“He’s probably good for the race,” the source said. “Witherspoon is going to hold Lindsey Graham accountable for most of his votes, [but] when those are analyzed, most of the general public are going to think [Graham’s] OK.”
The source added: “When you put Mark Sanford and [Sen.] Jim DeMint [R-S.C.] on TV for Lindsey Graham, this race is going to be over.”
Witherspoon’s brush with controversy stems from media reports eight years ago claiming Witherspoon defied Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson’s order demanding that some members of the RNC’s leadership sever ties with the Council of Conservative Citizens.
A January 1999 New York Times article indicated that Witherspoon refused to resign from the group, reporting that “Mr. Witherspoon insisted that the council’s South Carolina chapter held no racist views, but was simply an advocate for conservative causes, especially the right to display the Confederate flag in the South.”
An archived version of the national council’s Web site in early 1999 includes a Confederate flag and links to the news stories “White Child Dragged to Death by Black in Missouri” and “Black Killer has his way at Mickey D’s.”
In a recent interview with Roll Call, Witherspoon rebutted the Times story, claiming he was never a member of the CCC. He said he attended one meeting “many, many years ago,” and only to introduce former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) to the crowd. He said he never maintained formal ties with the group.
“I’ve been to one meeting,” Witherspoon said. “That’s it.”
Witherspoon declined to distance himself entirely from the organization, claiming he had close associates who worked for the group. Still, he said he was not entirely familiar with the CCC’s positions at the time, although in hindsight admitted some were “extreme.”
“Was it racist? It did appear that their views were a little bit extreme,” Witherspoon said. He claimed he later told the group’s leadership: “Hey, this has been brought to my attention, so I’m bringing it to your attention: Some of the views — some being good — but others could be viewed as extreme.”