The Citadel is known for its military-style education, but it also could find itself being fertile ground in one of this year's highly contested U.S. Senate races.

Political newcomer and Citadel alumnus Nancy Mace is one of five Republicans looking to challenge incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in the June primary.

She's most notably known for being the first woman to graduate from the Corps of Cadets, in 1999.

But fellow candidate Orangeburg attorney Bill Connor, is a Citadel graduate too, Class of '90. He went on to launch a military career in the Army, becoming a combat veteran in Afghanistan.

Not to be left out in trying to stake a claim, Graham last month was recognized by The Citadel's Republican Society, which gave him a ceremonial Revolutionary War musket and bayonet symbolizing the annual Nathan Hale Patriot Award.

"This is a school with a heritage that has withstood the test of time," Graham told about 200 people at the event.

Charleston Republican Eddie Taylor, who is a Graham supporter, a 1975 Citadel grad and an organizer of the dinner, said Graham was chosen as the headline recipient for his "patriotism, conservatism and honesty," along with his dogged pursuit of answers in the Benghazi consulate attack investigation.

Proceeds from the gathering help pay to send cadets from the club to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. Graham pledged $2,500 toward the trip. The club is considered the school's largest.

A political tradition

Former Francis Marion University political scientist Neal Thigpen, who follows GOP politics in the state, said The Citadel has a unique tradition that makes it a good place for candidates to cultivate.

"There's an awful lot of them who are semi-involved in politics and have been for years," he said.

School officials estimate there are more than 28,000 Corps of Cadets alumni and 8,000 Citadel Graduate College alumni. Of the 36,000 total, about 65 percent live in South Carolina. Plus, there are about 2,000 current members of the Corps of Cadets.

Thigpen compared Citadel graduate networking skills for candidates as similar to what University of South Carolina or Clemson University alumni might do in advocating someone from their ranks for a judgeship or a seat on a state board.

"There's nothing like an alum," Thigpen said. Some alumni might even vote for a fellow graduate even if they don't "have any type of chance," he said.

While all those associated with the school can't automatically be considered GOP supporters, evidence of the student body's conservative leanings surfaced noticeably in November when potential 2016 presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., visited the school. During a speech in the gymnasium, Paul said Hillary Clinton, as the former secretary of state, should be disqualified from running for president because the State Department failed to adequately protect the Benghazi consulate where four Americans were killed.

The comment drew strong applause from the assembled Corps of Cadets. "If I had to guess, they're pretty conservative here at The Citadel," Paul said afterward.

Meanwhile, some of the Senate campaigns have already tapped into cadets to work on their staffs.

"We have dozens of cadets who have volunteered for the campaign, just as we have dozens of college students across the state helping out in their respective areas," Graham spokesman Tate Zeigler said of cadets tied to Graham's Charleston campaign office.

Some of those cadet volunteers who were approached by The Post and Courier declined comment, saying they did not want to be a part of media interviews tied to the uniform.

Strong ties

The two Senate candidates who are Citadel graduates indicated they aren't going to concede the school to Graham.

Connor pointed out that Graham is not a graduate of the school, and even though he was applauded at the private Citadel Republican group appearance, it still stands that "he did not go through it."

"The club is not the whole school," Connor said of the Graham award.

Mace's campaign declined a request for an interview, but she issued a statement via email.

"I am enormously humbled by the countless number of Citadel alumni and cadets who have stepped up to the plate to join my campaign either as donors or volunteers. It's yet another strong testament to how ready the people of South Carolina are for new leadership," she said in the statement.

Also in the GOP running are Upstate businessman Richard Cash and state Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg. Columbia pastor Det Bowers indicated last week that he is joining the race as well.

Whether having Citadel ties automatically translates into securing GOP Senate race votes has yet to be tested. W. Crawford Moore Jr. of Cheraw, the Citadel Alumni Association executive committee president, said he hasn't heard of any obvious favorites in the pack - either way - among voters in the alumni community.

But Moore added that, personally speaking, school tradition isn't going to be a big decider for him on election day.

"It doesn't weigh on me where they went to college," Moore told the newspaper last month. "It's where they stand on the topics that matters to me."

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.