Is Lindsey Graham vulnerable?

Three Republican candidates already have announced they are gunning for South Carolina’s senior senator when he seeks re-election next year.

And if they can force him into a runoff next June, that could pose problems for the state’s most visible political figure.

Last week, state Sen. Lee Bright of Spartanburg announced he was running, joining Piedmont businessman Richard Cash and Nancy Mace, a consultant who also was the first woman to graduate from The Citadel. Still more candidates could emerge before filing ends in March.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said it’s too early to predict outcomes, but Graham is most vulnerable in the June primary rather than in the general election.

“The fact that Graham has drawn these opponents reflects what we have all heard over the past few years — many tea party Republicans want him out,” he said. “If anyone, or the combination of multiple candidacies, forces him into a runoff, Graham could be in real trouble.”

Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said Graham’s early advantage is that his announced and potential challengers come from the dissatisfied wing of the party and seem destined to divide that slice of the vote.

He predicted they’ll create “a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

“The loudest people of the party don’t tend to be his fans,” Huffmon added, pointing to those who don’t support any reaching out across the aisle to Democrats, as Graham has done in the past.

Graham’s assets include his incumbency and seniority — with all its advantages and built-in staff and fundraising potential, Sabato said. Also, he has high name identification and the ability to make news at any time.

Charleston’s 1st Congressional District U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, who has had a long-standing close relationship with Graham, said it’s too early to say if he is going to get involved in the race.

Sanford said he understands the ripples in the ranks of the Republican Party that Graham triggers during election season prompts critics and challengers to come forward.

“Whether you like or dislike Lindsey, he takes stands and anyone who takes stands in the world of politics is going to draw fire,” he said.

He acknowledged Graham is “loved by some and disliked by others” but that as an incumbent, with his level of cash, he is going to be tough to take on.

Graham already has $6.3 million on hand.

“At this point I’m observing, like everybody else, what comes next in the race,” Sanford said.

Henry McMaster, former state GOP chairman and previous S.C. attorney general, is one of the more vocal supporters for Graham, putting his re-election chances at “100 percent.”

Of the three challengers, McMaster said, “I think they’re all nice people. But Lindsey is going to win the primary and win re-election for good reason. He does a tremendous job for South Carolina and the country.”

McMaster called the anti-Graham vote “loud ... but not deep.”

“They get a lot of attention,” he added, “but they are not speaking for the strong majority of Republicans in the state who are going to re-elect Lindsey Graham, who are going to give him the nomination again.”

Graham has not engaged with any of his opponents to date. His campaign spokesman Tate Zeigler said Graham “is a strong fiscal, social, and national security conservative with the record to back it up.’

Zeigler noted Graham has fought to repeal Obamacare, deepen Charleston’s port, stand up for the unborn, protect the second amendment and support the military. “He looks forward to a spirited campaign,” Zeigler added.

Some of Graham’s most recent actions that have rankled some of the party’s conservatives are spelled out in a fundraising email for Mace — an email sent by a Nevada-based political action committee:

“From his criticism of Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster in support of civil liberties to siding against America as part of the Gang of Eight amnesty crafters, Graham has made it blatantly clear what many of us have known for years. Lindsey Graham is no conservative,” it said.

Still, Graham scored a 92 percent rating last year from the American Conservative Union, and he has repeatedly described himself as a conservative willing to compromise to solve problems.

And it remains to be seen how formidable Graham’s challengers will be. Shortly after she entered the race, Mace made headlines when her Twitter account retweeted a reference to Graham as “Nancy boy Graham,” a derogatory term used to describe an effeminate man. The retweet was soon taken down, and Mace later said the retweet was an accident.

Meanwhile, Graham is not the only South Carolina senator seeking election next year.

Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Tim Scott to fill the vacancy created by Sen. Jim DeMint’s resignation, but state law requires this seat to be on the ballot during the next general election, which is November 2014. The seat also will be up in 2016, when DeMint’s term was set to end.

The early political jockeying surrounding Graham’s seat contrasts markedly with the relative silence surrounding Scott’s contest.

“Scott is a conservative favorite, yet appears to have early support from all factions,” Sabato said. “And as South Carolina’s first African-American senator, he probably has some appeal to a slice of Democrats.”

He also has one other advantage that Graham lacks, Sabato said. “Scott hasn’t been in the Senate long enough to cast many controversial votes and make a lot of enemies.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.