Six challengers politely criticized Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) for his co-sponsorship of the “Gang of Eight” immigration bill, his vote for the 2008 TARP bailout, and votes to confirm liberal Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan in the South Carolina U.S. Senate Republican primary campaign’s only debate on Saturday. During the one hour event, however, none of the challengers distinguished themselves as the one candidate capable of capitalizing on his vulnerable record.
If Graham fails to obtain 50 percent of the vote on primary election day Tuesday, he will be forced into a one-on-one contest with the second place finisher in a runoff election two weeks later, on June 24.
For his part, Graham was confident he will beat that 50 percent threshold and avoid a runoff.
“The reason I’m going to win the primary, overwhelmingly I hope, is I’m a Ronald Reagan Republican,” Graham said at the debate.
“The Democrats know that if I win, I will beat the Democrat candidate’s brains out. They know that. That’s why they won’t spend 15 cents to beat me,” Graham added.
The Clemson University Palmetto Poll, released on Thursday, gives Graham good reason to be confident. It shows that he leads his nearest rival, state Senator Lee Bright, by a huge 49 percent to 9 percent margin. None of the other five challengers register with more than 3 percent support.
Significantly, the poll found 35 percent of likely Republican primary voters were undecided. If even a minimal amount of those undecideds break for Graham, he will easily pass the 50 percent required to avoid a runoff.
The poll was conducted of 400 likely Republican primary voters between May 22 and May 29, an unusually long period for a poll.
Stylistically, Graham was steady, sure footed and confident in the little time he had to set forth his case on Saturday night. He made no major blunders, and did not allow the polite but pointed criticisms of his challengers to get under his skin.
It was a forum in which none of the seven candidates competing in the June 10 Republican U.S. Senate primary had very much time to make their case. Moderator Charles Bierbauer, former CNN reporter and current Dean of the University of South Carolina School of Journalism, and two South Carolina journalists asked a handful of questions in the hour long “debate.” Each candidate had about eight minutes of air time.
Though several of the challengers hit Graham with strong criticisms on immigration and his willingness to abandon conservative principles to “get things done,” all seemed at some point to wander away from Graham’s key vulnerabilities. Instead of a steady drumbeat of focused and consistent attacks on one or two key issues, the evening meandered through a series of secondary issues that lessened the impact of the main critiques of Graham.
Small business owner Richard Cash, who polled at 3 percent in the Palmetto Poll, led off the criticisms of Graham. “You often say that you are a conservative leader who gets things done,” he told Graham. “It doesn’t matter if you are getting something done if it is the wrong thing.”
“Senator, you describe yourself as a Ronald Reagan Republican,” Cash said, “but a lot of us here on the stage tonight believe you’re a John McCain Republican.”
Bright followed Cash’s criticisms by telling Graham that none of the challengers would be on the stage “if you did not support amnesty, if you did not support much of Obama’s agenda, we wouldn’t be here tonight.”
Despite those two opening shots across the bow, it was an evening of missed opportunities for all six of Graham’s challengers.
This was particularly true on the issue of immigration, where Lindsey Graham defended his establishment Republican record of pro-amnesty positions, which are almost identical to those that have put House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) on the defensive in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District Republican primary race. Cantor’s challenger, Tea Party-backed Dave Brat, has turned that election, which will also be held on June 10, into a 13 point horse race by relentlessly attacking Cantor on his record in support of amnesty.
The split field of challengers in South Carolina has been unable to make similar headway against Graham.
“Amnesty, folks, is doing nothing,” Graham said, repeating a mantra supporters of amnesty have often used.
“Here’s my goal: to fix it once and for all,” he told the audience.
Richard Cash jumped on Graham’s immigration position.
“We are a country based on the rule of law. . . Providing a pathway to citizenship to those who’ve broken the law is simply undermining our own foundation . . .. If Senator Graham’s [Gang of Eight Immigration Reform] law is passed, and I hope it won’t be, in five or ten years we’ll be having this same conversation [about the illegal alien problem].”
Bright took exception to Graham’s previous statements that opponents of “immigration reform” are bigots. “By bigots he meant us,” he told the audience. “On June 10 you can tell Lindsey Graham we need illegal immigrants to go home.”
Benjamin Dunn, who polled at zero percent in the Palmetto Poll, said he opposed amnesty. “I support expanding the e-verify program nationally… When it comes to foreign nationals…. the enforcement is on the employer’s end… [That] largely takes care of the problem.”
“Our legal side is out of control,” Connor added. “We’re using a diversity lottery…. it was 250,000 in the 1980s. Now it’s about a million…. People [who immigrate] have got to become American. . . We’re losing that as a people.”
“We first need to secure our border,” said small business owner Nancy Mace, echoing Graham’s immigration theme. “If you’re here illegally, you shouldn’t have access to welfare benefits,” she added. Mace polled at 2 percent in the Palmetto Poll.
Graham took an indirect shot at the Tea Party, asserting that Republicans lost four previous Senate races in other parts of the country due to nominees “who could not withstand scrutiny.”
He also confidently defended his support for NSA surveillance. Speaking of the five recently released Taliban leaders, Graham said “If they’re calling back [in the United States], I’ll get a warrant,” adding that such surveillance is justified because “we’re under siege.”
Graham also defended his votes to confirm liberal Supreme Court Justices Sotomayor and Kagan.
“As to judges,” he said, “the Constitution is not a Republican document, it’s not a Democratic document.”
“Strom Thurmond,” he added “voted on twenty-three Supreme Court nominees, and he only voted no twice.”
Broadly speaking, no challenger emerged as the candidate around whom the anti-Graham forces could coalesce.
Connor missed opportunities by focusing on minor issues. For instance, he made it a point of highlighting Senator Graham’s failure to support the abolition of the Department of Education.
Det Bowers sounded more like the preacher he is than the politician he aspires to be, and delivered abbreviated sermons in his responses rather than pointed political attacks.
Nancy Mace appeared uncomfortable in the setting and delivered responses that gave the impression she had simply memorized talking points from her campaign material.
Benjamin Dunn, who has raised virtually no money, did a good job of articulating the limited government philosophy of the Tea Party movement, but his delivery was deadpan, and not likely to inspire.
Though no single challenger stood out in the debate, Joe Dugan, founder and executive producer of the South Carolina Tea Party Convention, told Breitbart News,“time was certainly a factor but I think [the criticisms of the challengers] may have had a cumulative factor.”
Dugan, who has endorsed Bill Connor, said “I wish there had been more time for Connor to expound on Lindsey’s advocacy of arming the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, [which was] not mentioned.”
“I was disappointed that no one tied Graham to the VA scandal,” Dugan added. “He is the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services committee and should have exposed this long ago. Veterans have been complaining about this for decades and he puts on the public persona of being their advocate-in-chief.”
All six challengers said they supported the values of the Tea Party movement, though none of them seemed confident that would translate into support for their candidacy on election day. State Senator Lee Bright noted that he had received a 100 percent scorecard from all the Tea Party groups in the state that he know of, but seemed uncertain about their level of support for him on election day.
“I hope the Tea Party comes out June 10th,” he said.
Like Bright, the Tea Party’s Dugan is also counting on primary election day turnout. “I am still hoping for a large enough turnout for a runoff on Tuesday and although it will be only two weeks after the primary, headlines will be made in a one-on-one confrontation,” Dugan told Breitbart News.
Image source: C-SPAN