POLITICS
08/07/2013 05:05 pm ET Updated Aug 08, 2013

Now Everybody Wants To Primary Lindsey Graham

It seems like it was only six months ago that the reelection of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) wasn't even worth doubting. As the National Review's Katrina Trinko reported at the time, Graham -- despite having "consistently irked conservatives" -- had an all but "clear path" to another term. Per Trinko:

Yet South Carolina tea partiers admit that chances are good Graham will face no serious opponent. “Lindsey Graham’s got an easy path to reelection,” glumly admits Colin Lindell, founder of the Palmetto State’s Aiken County Tea Party. “People would love to see someone challenge him, but the problem is there is no real serious contender who can gather the support.”

“There’s nobody viable to go up against him,” agrees Allan Olson who founded the Columbia Tea Party.

Six months later, it looks like the anti-Graham forces have gone from too non-existent to far too numerous. As The State reported on Wednesday, South Carolina state Sen. Lee Bright (R-Roebuck) is "expected to make his candidacy for U.S. Senate official sometime next week," and has already launched a website to further that endeavor.

Bright, The State reports, "has long been speculated to be a Tea Party challenger." All well and good, but there's also a man named Richard Cash who has claimed the tea party mantle (and received a RedState endorsement) who has decided to run against Graham. For that matter, there is also a woman named Nancy Mace (she is the first female graduate of The Citadel) who has claimed the tea party mantle who has decided to run against Graham. Finally, we are all waiting to hear if Lt. Colonel Bill Connor will decide to also claim the Tea Party mantle and run against Graham in the primary.

The game, then, is whether or not this combination of challengers can somehow keep Graham from winning 50 percent of the primary vote, forcing him into a run-off. It's a challenge that Graham's never faced. In 2002, Graham was not opposed in the GOP primary to replace the retiring Strom Thurmond. In 2008, Graham's opponent, South Carolina GOP national Committeeman Buddy Witherspoon, couldn't pull Graham below 66 percent of the vote.

But while drawing the ire of a four-headed tea party hydra is a good way to measure the relative amount of disaffection that exists for the incumbent, it could also be a prelude to self-sabotage. As Kyle Trystad reports, "the sheer number of ambitious Republicans seeking to oust the South Carolina senator may end up being the undoing of them all."

Why? The answer is mostly about money. Back in February, it was reported that Graham had amassed a mighty war chest -- $4.5 million. Since then, that number has surged, in reports, to $6.3 million. Clearly, that wasn't sufficient to scare away would-be competitors, but what $6.3 million lacks in fear-raising, it more than makes up for in its ability to saturate South Carolina with ads and finance a campaign through all the eventualities. Krygstad spoke to a GOP operative in the state who came to the same dead reckoning:

One unaffiliated GOP operative in the state said the anti-incumbent vote that almost any challenger starts out with in a statewide race in South Carolina is about one-third of the electorate.

“The problem for any opponent taking on an incumbent … is getting from 35 percent to 50 percent plus one,” the operative said. “That’s where it gets real expensive.”

[...]

The Republican operative, speaking on background, said the only way Graham could fall below 50 percent in the primary is if a candidate or group “can do two to three months of full saturation television in every market in this state” — potentially a $3 million proposition.

And once the challenger has blown their cash forcing the runoff, they need to rifle through the couch cushions to push through to the end. From here, the problem is fairly academic -- the anti-Graham vote has too many choices vying for the same dollars.

Nevertheless, the National Journal opted to put Graham on its list of the "Top 10 Lawmakers Who Could Lose a Primary Next Year." I'm not sure that's not premature.

[CORRECTION: This post originally identified Nancy Mace as "Linda." We regret the error.]

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