05/09/2013 11:48 am ET

Lindsey Graham Fending Off Primary Challenge In South Carolina

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WASHINGTON -- In 2010, as the tea party was arriving on the political scene, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the movement would "die out."

"The problem with the tea party, I think it’s just unsustainable because they can never come up with a coherent vision for governing the country," Graham said in a New York Times Magazine profile.

He continued to criticize the tea party into 2011 for not having a more constructive attitude, but also began to reach out to other Republican senators who arrived in 2010 with the support of the conservative grassroots movement, like Kentucky's Rand Paul and Utah's Mike Lee.

Yet Graham has also clashed with those two, and with newly elected Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who has quickly become a strong ally of Paul and Lee. One of their biggest disagreements is over foreign policy, where Graham -- along with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) -- favors a more interventionist role for the U.S. than do the tea party senators.

Graham took a shot at Cruz just last Friday, watching the freshman senator speak to a state GOP dinner in Columbia, S.C. He told HuffPost immediately afterward that Cruz has "got to prove to the country, and to people in Texas ... that he can, you know, throw a punch and also solve a problem."

National tea-party types are still calling for Graham's scalp as the senator gears up for a 2014 reelection campaign.

"He's begging for a primary,” Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, told ABC News & Yahoo's TopLine on Wednesday.

And in South Carolina, anti-Graham forces tried, unsuccessfully, to change the nominating process from a primary to a convention. The latter format would allow the nomination to be driven more by the hard-core activists within the GOP, and would give them a better shot at unseating Graham.

Graham has drawn one Republican challenger so far, upstate businessman Richard Cash, and there are two others said to be leaning toward a run as well: state Sen. Lee Bright (Spartanburg), and Charleston businesswoman Nancy Mace. But the consensus among South Carolina Republicans is that all are long shots.

"None of the three have a great shot but Bright has some name ID and support," said Jonathan Hoffman, who was one of 16 Republicans, including former Gov. Mark Sanford, who ran in the Republican primary to fill the 1st District's congressional seat.

Political consultant and activist Drew McKissick said Cash's ground game in the 3rd Congressional District, where he was runner-up in a 2010 primary runoff, is "probably [the] best anyone's seen in years," but added, "that was just the 3rd [Congressional District]."

"No credible person seems to be getting in line. It's a little hard to believe," one South Carolina GOP operative said on background.

State Sen. Tom Davis, a Republican from Beaufort, is one name that some in the Palmetto State say could potentially pose a problem for Graham, but Davis has said he is not going to run. And of course the congressional delegation has a few names that have strong appeal to the grassroots: Rep. Mick Mulvaney from the 5th District, Rep. Jeff Duncan from the 3rd District, and Rep. Trey Gowdy from the 4th District.

The GOP operative said that Graham's political operation has managed to keep the most credible threats to Graham on the sidelines through bare-knuckle tactics.

"Graham's people are good. They keep Hoover-level type files on people who might run," the operative said. "They know where you live, who you sleep with, where you drink. And they're not afraid to tell you that they know that."

The one guy who might not be intimidated by that sort of thing? Mark Sanford. He won the 1st District seat's general election on Tuesday, and his skeletons have been on full display for a few years now.



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