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Lindsey Graham Could Face Conservative Primary Challenger After All Lindsey Graham Could Face Conservative Primary Challenger After All

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Lindsey Graham Could Face Conservative Primary Challenger After All

photo of Sarah Mimms
February 5, 2013

It looked on Friday as if Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., might have avoided a primary in 2014, as one of the only remaining potential challengers, state Sen. Tom Davis, decided to take a pass on the Senate race. But on Monday, state Sen. Lee Bright, a fiscal conservative who was recently supported by former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, for reelection, announced that he is seriously looking at the race.

Bright told Hotline On Call that while Graham did "a wonderful job" during his first six years in Congress, the Republican has moderated his views since he moved to the Senate. "I just don't feel like he represents the interests of South Carolina," Bright said, citing Graham's position on immigration and climate change.

Bright said that he is not yet "100 percent certain" that he'll get into the race, but felt the need to step up after Davis, the entire congressional delegation and a host of other potential challengers indicated that they would not run against Graham. Bright said he is speaking to Republicans throughout the state, including major donors and grassroots groups who would help knock on doors, and that he would made a decision in the next 60 to 90 days.

Bright appears to be the fiscal conservative Graham's opponents have been looking for. First elected to the state Senate in 2008, Bright is a member of the fiscally conservative William Wallace Caucus and is a major advocate for federalism, going so far in 2011 as to introduce legislation calling for South Carolina to establish its own currency.

"I'm a very limited-government style Republican," he said. "I agreed with a lot of Dr. Paul's stances. I think the spending is out of control. I think our defense should be used for just that, defense."

Still, it's unclear if Bright can raise the money needed for a primary against Graham, who had nearly $4.5 million in the bank for his reelection bid at the end of December, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. Bright raised less than $300,000 for his 2012 reelection to the state Senate.

Bright acknowledged Graham's fundraising advantage and predicted that he would be outspent "two-to-one" by Graham. But he added that he is hopeful that national conservative organizations will get behind his candidacy to counteract Graham's financial advantage.

One possibility could be the Club for Growth, which has put Graham at the top of its target list for 2014. The group's South Carolina chapter named Bright one its "Taxpayer Heroes" last month and has given him a 100 percent rating on every one of its scorecards since he was first elected to the state Senate. Though Club for Growth communications director Barney Keller said it was too early for the natioanl group to line up behind a candidate, he criticized Graham's record, adding: "We're always looking for an opportunity to change bad votes to good votes."

Graham has angered conservatives in the state and nationally and is considered one of the most likely Republican incumbents to draw a primary challenge. His votes for Pres. Obama's agenda -- notably, he supported both of Obama's nominees to the Supreme Court and, more recently, voted in favor of the fiscal cliff deal -- have drawn ire from the right. Graham opened himself up to more criticism from the right last month when he  signed on with a bipartisan group of senators to push immigration reform, even after a similar fight just before his 2008 reelection cost him dearly with local Republicans.

But Graham argued recently that however susceptible he is on his right flank, the immigration issue is too important to pass up. "I am confident -- very confident -- that if I help solve this problem in a way that we won't have 20 million illegal immigrants 20 years from now, not only will I get re-elected, (but) I can look back and say I was involved in something that was important," he told McClatchy.

That doesn't seem to be sufficient for Bright, who added the he is "leery" of whether the Obama administration will truly enforce the border in exchange for Republicans softening their position on what to do with illegal immigrants who are already in the United States. "I'm anxious to see what they propose," he said, of the Senate group. "I'm against amnesty and that's what they've been coming out with."

Graham's office declined to comment on Bright's potential entry into the race.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post misstated Bright's score from the South Carolina Club for Growth.

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