Editor’s note: This is the first part of a three part series.
The saga of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and his half dozen challengers will come to a head on June 10.
Either Graham will avoid a runoff by receiving 50 percent or more of the primary vote against his six opponents, or he’ll get less than 50 percent and he’ll face off against his nearest rival on June 24.
With Graham currently polling below 50 percent, a runoff remains a possibility. While his massive fundraising advantage allows him to blanket the airwaves, he remains a polarizing figure in Republican circles. Most primary voters have already made up their minds for or against South Carolina’s senior senator.
But given the diffuse nature of Graham’s challengers, few voters are familiar with his six rivals. As Butch Cassidy asked the Sundance Kid, “Who are those guys?”
Judging by the Aiken Republican Club’s candidate forum held on April 16, at which five of the six challengers attended, they are a serious and well spoken – if not well funded – bunch. The sixth, state Sen. Lee Bright, couldn’t attend because the senate was in session.
Ironically, Bright appears to be the leading challenger.
Hailing from Spartanburg, Bright is the only one of the six in elective office. Therefore, he’s the only candidate who can tie a voting record to his rhetoric.
Depending on how “conservatism” is measured or defined, Bright may be South Carolina’s most conservative state senator. If elected to the U.S. Senate, he would ally himself with Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Mike Lee.
Bright’s a favorite with several conservative organizations, earning 100 percent legislative scorecard ratings from the Club for Growth, the Palmetto Family Alliance, the South Carolina National Federation of Independent Businesses and Life PAC.
He received “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association and S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley’s legislative scorecard, and got the Palmetto Liberty PAC’s highest score in 2012 among state senators.
Bright has endorsements from the Republican Liberty Caucus, Gun Owners of America, the National Association for Gun Rights, Americans for Legal Immigration and several local Tea Party organizations.
Legislatively, he’s sponsored bills to protect the sanctity of life, defend Second Amendment liberties, implement the so-called “fair tax” and enact term limits. Bright outspokenly opposes Obamacare and championed its nullification in South Carolina.
Bright opposes both amnesty for illegal aliens and the heavy handed, invasive and unconstitutional power grabs made by federal bureaucracies such as the IRS, NSA and TSA.
On paper, Bright should be Graham’s strongest challenger, but fundraising issues have so far prevented him from taking off.
The most intriguing challenger is deTreville (Det) Bowers from Columbia. He’s had a long journey, from attorney and Democratic Party operative – he headed Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign in South Carolina – to pastor of Christ Church of the Carolinas and Republican candidate for senate.
Judging by his performance at the April 16 forum, Det Bowers has a strong stage presence, a dignified bearing and an easy going charm one-on-one. His responses at the forum were typically crisp and to the point, interlaced at times with folksy humor and Biblical allusions.
According to press reports, Bowers’ fundraising is – by the standards of Graham’s challengers – prodigious. He raised over $400,000 in the first quarter of this year.
On national issues, Bowers mirrors the other candidates: He opposes abortion and Obamacare, favors balanced budgets and term limits, and seeks to restore Constitutional restraints on the federal judiciary and federal agencies.
What sets Bowers apart is his Christian conservatism. While other candidates seek the votes of Christian conservatives by adopting their issues and addressing their concerns, Bowers embodies the movement. As an ordained minister, this isn’t surprising.
A guide to his thinking is found in his short book “America Upon His Shoulders,” which was freely distributed at the forum. Sprinkled with memorable aphorisms, Bowers’ book contains the distilled essence of the Christian Right: America will recede into darkness unless it returns to Christ.
“America is more than a mere country – it is founded upon the inalienable rights of those depositing their trust in the one true God,” writes Bowers, “When the policies of a government are divorced from Christianity, the state is ceded to a godless ideology ... The American form of government cannot succeed except in a milieu pervaded with Christianity.”
Bowers seeks electoral success by reclaiming territory ceded long ago. If Christian conservatives forgive his prior association with Dukakis, then Bowers may be the wildcard in the upcoming election.
Gary Bunker is a former Aiken County Councilman.