Two South Carolina conservatives are preparing for possible primary challenges against Sen. Lindsey Graham (R), accusing him of being insufficiently conservative for the state.
Nancy Mace, the first female graduate of The Citadel and a conservative blogger, told The Hill on Monday that she’s taking steps toward a possible run against the two-term senator.
Bruce Carroll, a co-founder of the gay conservative group GOProud, is also examining the viability of a primary campaign.
“I do think it’s about time we turn a credible candidate up against Graham, certainly,” Mace said.
Mace said she’d been approached to run by several South Carolina Republicans after writing an op-ed article for The Hill last Friday ripping Graham for denouncing Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination to lead the CIA.
“There are certainly folks that have reached out to me,” Mace added. “There haven’t been any credible candidates to step up to the plate and what happened last week really stirred things up.”
Graham has long riled conservative Republicans.
He has a reputation in Washington for breaking with GOP orthodoxy on issues ranging from spending to immigration to taxes to climate change legislation, though he’s viewed as more of an orthodox conservative in South Carolina.
Criticism of Graham spiked last week after he took to the floor of the Senate to blast Paul — and Republicans who supported him — for holding up Brennan’s nomination over the Obama administration’s drone policy.
There were also conservative grumblings about Graham’s praise for President Obama after he and 11 other Republican senators joined the president for a private dinner to discuss the budget.
The deep-pocketed, fiscally conservative Club for Growth has been keeping a close eye on the South Carolina race. NumbersUSA, a group that supports a major reduction in immigration levels, is already running television ads attacking Graham for his role in the bipartisan negotiations on the topic.
But Graham will be hard to beat in 2014.
He has nearly $6 million in the bank and is known as a feisty, scrappy campaigner who won’t be outworked on the campaign trail — a big difference from other Republican office-holders who’ve lost reelections to Tea Party challengers in recent years.
His poll numbers with Republicans have also improved dramatically over the last few years.
A recent Winthrop University poll put his approval rating with Republicans and GOP-leaning independents at 72 percent, with just 17 percent disapproving.
While GOP primaries tend to be dominated by the most conservative voters, that’s a huge hurdle to clear.
“It’ll be tough to beat him, definitely. There’s nobody who will outwork him, I’ll tell you that,” said Warren Tompkins, a top Republican consultant in the state who’s worked for previous Graham campaigns.
“He’s a fundraising machine and he’s taking nothing for granted.”
Tompkins said Graham’s floor speech last Friday angered libertarians and some Tea Party backers in the state, but called it a minor misstep in an otherwise effective push to undercut any opposition.
“I think it’s just a temporary stub of the toe,” he said.
Even as Mace weighs her options, she expressed some hesitation about taking on Graham.
“A Senate race is a huge decision for anybody and not the kind of decision I would make on the fly. That’s a big decision,” she said.
Carroll announced Monday that he was stepping down from the board of GOProud to “seriously” consider a Senate bid against Graham.
“Over the next few weeks, I will be studying the resources, time and effort it would take to do my part in holding Lindsey Graham accountable,” Carroll said.
A number of Republicans in the state said they hadn’t heard of Carroll before his Monday declaration, but some believe Mace could be a tougher candidate.
“If you look at what she’d bring to the table, the extraordinary tale she could tell as the first woman to graduate from The Citadel, as woman who’s started her own business, someone with two kids, and who’s very involved in the liberty movement ... I think she’d be a serious candidate in the race,” said South Carolina state Sen. Tom Davis (R), a longtime Graham critic.
“She’s smart and part of the movement.”
One thing that could hurt Mace, though, is her heavy involvement in the libertarian-leaning political website FITSnews.com, which has caused a number of controversies in the past.
She is a partial owner of the site, whose co-owner, Will Folks, claimed he’d had an affair with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R). Mace hasn’t been directly involved in some of the site’s more controversial content.
“She has a long way to go in terms of getting people familiar with who she is, and her association with Folks is probably very detrimental. Some of the stuff they put on that website may not go over too well in Greenville and Spartanburg with the social conservatives,” said Tompkins. “One minute it’s politics and the next minute it’s porn.”