ROCK HILL — U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham has begun his campaign for re-election in earnest, opening a half-dozen campaign offices across South Carolina this week.
He’s also taking his campaign to the streets to tell voters to support his efforts to let people opt out of the new federal health care law, to talk to college students of the need to stay engaged overseas to protect the world. He ate breakfast with veterans, promising to find a way to fix Social Security and Medicare.
There is a subtle shift to the right in Graham’s thinking in recent months as he faces the toughest primary fight of his career. He talks more about restricting abortion and hammers President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the four Americans who died at the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya.
Graham said he refined some of his positions after a bit of self-reflection before opening his campaign for a third term in the U.S. Senate.
“I like campaigning,” Graham said after cutting the ribbon on his headquarters in Columbia. “Campaigns require you to sit down and think about, ‘OK should I be running? What have I done? And more importantly, what can I do?’”
This is Graham’s toughest political fight, in part because he’s never faced a real challenge. Now he faces five opponents who all think he is not conservative enough for his native state. In 2002, he had no opposition in the Republican primary when Strom Thurmond retired, while a nominal challenger opposed him in 2008.
While there hasn’t been any recent reliable polling, Graham appears strong in other areas. His campaign had $7.6 million in the bank at the end of the last reporting period in December. None of his opponents had more than $260,000 in their accounts. Only one of them has won a political race before. And Graham said he has been waiting his whole political life to be in this kind of a fight.
“We have 5,000 precinct captains,” Graham said. “I have a very deep organization – a lot of people support me that you don’t hear much from. They’re not out there jumping up and down.”
The goal is to get as many voters to come to the polls as possible, confident he has a quiet majority of Republicans in his corner that can outvote the loud voices of opposition. Graham will need 50 percent in the June primary to avoid a one-on-one runoff with one of his opponents.
“When I win my primary, and I will, it gives you legitimacy. In between races you get a lot of criticism. I am going to show folks that criticism comes with the job,” Graham said. “Don’t mistake loud with being right.”
Graham’s opponents knock him for his willingness to work with Democrats on issues like immigration reform. All of them have spent months speaking to Republican gatherings across the state, nearly always brining up Graham’s vote to approve Obama’s nominees Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court. Graham’s response is that presidents get to nominate whom they want as long as they are qualified.
Only one of them has taken to the air. Orangeburg attorney Bill Connor has an ad that is shown periodically on Fox News. It opens with a clip of Graham praising Hillary Clinton’s work as secretary of state at a summit on how to combat AIDS in Africa.
“You can tell an election is coming when Lindsey Graham is calling himself a conservative again – holding guns on TV and railing against the president, sometimes,” Connor said.
State Sen. Lee Bright from Spartanburg, the only opponent of Graham to win an election, has been hobbled after reporting at least $1.4 million in debt from a trucking business he said failed because of onerous federal regulations. His campaign ended last year with just $50,000 in the bank, and he recently raffled off a rifle as part of a fundraising effort.
Graham’s other opponents are Lowcountry businesswoman Nancy Mace, Anderson businessman Richard Cash and Columbia pastor Det Bowers.
So far, major conservative figures in South Carolina and the nation are sitting this one out too.
That leaves Graham and his opponents to campaign on their own. Along with all those campaign headquarter openings, Graham spent an hour talking to Winthrop University students about foreign policy, which has become his favorite topic. His message can be summed up in one of his favorite phrases: “Our enemies are emboldened and our friends are scared.”
The senator plans to emphasize he can get things done. He tells crowds at every stop that this isn’t about just winning an election, but about what gets done in Washington.
“I think in the next decade, my voice will be needed for the country. I don’t mean to be vain about that. But I am a conservative that gets things done,” Graham said.
At 58, Graham he won’t say how long he’ll try to serve, but said it will likely be impossible to beat out Thurmond’s 48 years as senator.
“I’m genetically term limited. I’ll never make it to 100. Nobody in my family has made it to 80, hardly,” Graham said.
But for now, Graham will crisscross South Carolina with free barbecue and chicken nugget trays.
“You eat at Chick-fil-A, you’ll have a good chance of meeting me,” Graham said.
Instructions are written on a chalkboard in U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham's new campaign office on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, in Columbia, S.C. Graham has kicked off his re-election campaign in earnest with a number of events across South Carolina. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)×
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham talks to reporters after giving a lecture and answering questions on foreign policy from students at Winthrop University on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, in Rock Hill, S.C. It was one of a number of events for the senator as he kicked off his 2014 re-election campaign in earnest. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)×