AIKEN — U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham is showing no signs of changing how he operates as he faces the biggest challenge of his political career.
Willing to buck the public tide in South Carolina, Graham has backed military action against Syria, an immigration overhaul that sets a path to citizenship for some in the U.S. illegally and President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominees.
“I'm conservative, but I do not mind one bit working with the other side to build my country up,” he says in speeches to conservatives. “I'm a Ronald Reagan Republican.”
His three Republican challengers are coming at him from the right, arguing that he's not conservative enough. They're also noting that the 58-year-old lawyer has been in some political office since 1993 and shows no sign of stepping down soon unless he gets voted out.
“This seat has been held for 59 years by two people,” says one of his challengers, Nancy Mace, referring to Graham and the late Sen. Strom Thurmond.
To win, the challengers face their own hurdles: They will need to win over groups like the Aiken Republican Club. All three — state Sen. Lee Bright, small business owner Richard Cash and Mace, a political newcomer — have spoken to the group that typically attracts mostly older, well-off voters. And at a recent gathering, it was clear that while many in the group aren't thrilled with all of Graham's positions, they will need some convincing to dump him after 12 years.
“If you asked me a few months ago, I would have voted against him,” Donald Chappell said. “But I'm neutral now. I want to hear what all the challengers have to say.”
Graham may be most vulnerable on his right flank.
Bring up his name at a tea party meeting, and voices start to rise and heads shake in disgust. Several times in the past few years, a county Republican Party has passed a motion rebuking him, including one earlier this month by the Fairfield County Republican Party that cites “29 issues Senator Graham voted with the Democrats.” Graham even heard a smattering of boos when he spoke at the state Republican Party convention earlier this year.
But those die-hard believers don't make up the majority of primary voters. South Carolina holds open primaries, and voters can't register by party.
Graham is a savvy politician who has been preparing for a challenge for years. He has $6.3 million in his campaign bank account, raising nearly $2 million in the first six months of 2013. Challengers will have to raise $20,000 a day just to catch up. Graham could spend more than $10 on every voter who cast a ballot in the 2012 GOP presidential primary.
Graham hasn't faced much Republican opposition before. He got a majority of votes in a three-way race when he first was elected to the U.S. House in 1994 and didn't face Republican opposition for a House seat again. He also scared off any challengers when Thurmond retired in 2002, getting the party's nomination to take over that venerable seat without facing anyone in the primary. In 2008, he won 67 percent of the primary vote against a weak opponent and was re-elected with the backing of 58 percent of general election voters.
The challengers, for their part, must find some way of separating themselves from each other. A candidate has to get a majority of votes to win the primary, so the key is to finish second and get to take on Graham one-on-one in a two-week sprint to a runoff.
Mace is best known as the first woman to graduate from South Carolina's military college, The Citadel, in 1999. She doesn't shy away from talking about the trail she blazed, while also pointing out she is a working mother with her own marketing firm that has designed and operated websites for several state politicians.
“As a woman in that all-male, very tough environment, you can bend your values and your beliefs and who you are to conform to some type of good ol' boy system you will never be accepted into. Or you could, like I learned, stay firm in your belief, your values and your principles and still be successful,” Mace said.
Bright has spent four years in the South Carolina Senate, building a reputation as a conservative who will compromise over very little. He asked the crowd in Aiken why Obama was so worried about children dying in the chemical weapons attack in Syria when he won't protect unborn children at home. He told them he not only wasn't sure if he will have Social Security when he gets old, but he worries if he will even have a country. And he compared himself to an uncompromising U.S. senator from neighboring North Carolina.
“If you elect me to the Senate, you will think Jesse Helms has rose from the dead,” Bright said.
Also running is Cash, the biggest unknown of the bunch. Cash's only other run for political office came in 2010, when he finished first in a Republican House primary with 25 percent of the vote, beating Jeff Duncan. Duncan came back and won the runoff with 51 percent of the vote.
Cash owns a fleet of ice-cream trucks and a used-car dealership. He can tap into a network of Christian conservatives, who respect the eight years Cash worked full-time for the anti-abortion group Pastors for Life.
For his part, Graham's view of the race is simple: “I'm going to be judged on how good of a senator I have been and how good of a senator I can be. My opponents are going to have to convince people they are going to be better at the job than me.”