South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s opposition to political ads targeting several Democratic senate incumbents could create a significant re-election issue for him in 2014.
When Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul launched an ad campaign against Democrats who opposed his proposal to end foreign aid to Libya, Egypt and Pakistan, Graham took the unusual step of defending the Democrats from a fellow Republican.
Graham held a conference call with West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin to slam both the ad and Paul’s foreign aid bill. (RELATED: Lindsey Graham defends Democrats from Rand Paul’s foreign aid attacks)
Paul swiftly fired back, telling Politico, “I don’t see myself campaigning against a Republican in a general election ever, that’s why I think it’s extraordinary that Graham is supporting a Democrat in a general election.”
“Which is more important,” he asked: “Defending … a failed policy of foreign aid or getting a Republican majority?”
The firestorm comes amid speculation that Graham could be a tea party target when he faces re-election two years from now.
In September, Club for Growth president Chris Chocola told a Christian Science Monitor breakfast that his group may have Graham in its sights.
Noting several high-profile conservative primary victories over established Republican incumbents, Chocola said, “If you are looking over the horizon of 2014, the sun may rise over South Carolina.”
Last year a Public Policy Polling survey found that 42 percent of South Carolina Republicans believed Graham was too liberal. Among the two-thirds of state GOP primary voters who consider themselves conservative, that number was 53 percent.
Only 38 percent of self-described conservatives agreed that Graham’s views were “just right,” compared to 45 percent of all South Carolina Republicans.
South Carolina state Sen. Tom Davis, who has emerged as a local tea party favorite, believes a primary challenge is inevitable.
“I like Lindsey Graham,” Davis told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an interview. “I think he is a good guy and has done some good things.”
“[But] I look at some of the things he has done and not only me, but some other conservatives, are scratching our heads.”
Graham teamed with Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain on comprehensive immigration reform legislation conservatives widely regarded as amnesty for illegal immigrants.
The senator’s fiercest critics nickname him “Grahamnesty.”
Graham also voted to confirm both of President Barack Obama’s nominees to the Supreme Court, Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
Davis criticized Graham for supporting the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in 2008, saying TARP used “taxpayer dollars to bail out Wall Street bankers who engaged in very risky practices.”
“Instead of forcing Wall Street to pay the price for bad investments, you have the federal government coming to bail them out,” Davis said. “That is the antithesis of conservatism.”
In June, Graham distanced himself from a pledge against tax increases sponsored by Grover Norquist.
“I’m willing to move my party, or try to, on the tax issue,” Graham said at the time. “I need someone on the Democratic side being willing to move their party on structural changes to entitlements.”
Norquist replied that “Lindsey Graham in not a thought leader in the Republican Party.”
The New York Times quoted Graham saying he was willing to accept higher tax revenues to prevent cuts in defense spending, although his office later clarified that he was referring only to closing tax loopholes.
“I think someone will challenge Lindsey Graham for these reasons,” Davis told The DC News Foundation. Noting that many local Republican committees have adopted resolutions critical of Graham, he said he saw a “fundamental disconnect” between some of the senator’s positions and conservative South Carolinians.
Yet Graham easily fended off a 2008 primary challenge from former Republican National Committeeman Buddy Witherspoon.
That year Bob Conley, a conservative who had supported the Republican presidential campaigns of Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul, won the Democratic nomination to challenge Graham.
“The old Democrat is the new Democrat,” Conley said of his unlikely primary win.
Graham defeated Conley by a 16-percent margin.
Davis said a run against Graham wasn’t in his current plans, but that whoever accepted the task would have to ask the senator “a lot of hard questions.”
Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford is another possible challenger.
Utah Sen. Robert Bennett, Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski are incumbent Republicans who have lost their primaries to tea party-backed challengers in recent years. Murkowski was re-elected as a write-in candidate.
The late Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist both opted to leave the Republican Party rather than face primary opponents with tea party backing. (RELATED: Longtime GOP Senate moderate Arlen Specter dies)
Tea party candidates have also been accused of hurting Republicans’ general election chances in some races. Christine O’Donnell was blamed for the GOP’s loss of a likely Senate pickup in Delaware, and polls show the Senate race in Indiana tightened considerably after Lugar lost his re-nomination fight.
“I’m not going to give this party over to people who can’t win,” Graham told conservative critics at a South Carolina Republican convention.
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