South Carolinians aren’t that fond of Sen. Lindsey Graham, and the Democrats have noticed. Despite the veneer of an inevitable win that Graham’s camp has carefully cultivated in the national media, polls show that he’s weaker than most people realize. So weak, in fact, that the state’s Democrats are quietly preparing a serious challenge for his US Senate seat.
Republicans don’t typically lose statewide races in red South Carolina, but this race, the Democrats believe, could be different.
Graham had a mere 39.6 percent approval rating among all registered voters in a recent Winthrop University poll. Forty-three percent disapproved of his job performance. That’s without a single negative ad run against Graham so far in this race. No one knows how low Graham’s popularity would sink with a real examination of his record on SC’s airwaves, because his GOP primary opponents lack the funds to do it.
That could change if former South Carolina Treasurer Thomas Ravenel, a multi-millionaire developer, enters the race. Before Ravenel announced he would run as an independent in the general election if Graham won the GOP primary, Graham had no serious Democratic challenger. Once Ravenel announced, the Democrats put up state Sen. Brad Hutto, who is not a placeholder, but one of the state’s strongest candidates on their side.
Why? Because Democrats believe that as a third party challenger, Ravenel could take enough of the vote away from Graham to make Hutto viable.
Polls show that despite a multi-million dollar barrage of positive ads on South Carolina’s airwaves, Graham has struggled to attract the support of the 50 percent of his own party’s voters he’ll need to win the June 10 primary without a runoff. It’s a surprising level of weakness for a politician who has served in Congress since 1994.
So far, Graham’s six GOP challengers have also failed to gain significant traction. Blame that not on Graham’s strength, but on South Carolina’s fragmented conservative movement, which has been unable to unite behind a single candidate. Without that unity, national groups have shied away from using precious dollars to defeat Graham. As a result, most South Carolinians know little about his GOP challengers, who combined are only expected to get 16 percent of the vote.
The latest poll has Graham at only 49 percent in the GOP primary, with 35 percent undecided. For half of South Carolina Republicans, it’s anybody but Graham.
But what if a candidate with the funds to truly examine Graham’s record got into the race? An independently wealthy businessman, Ravenel has pledged to put $5 million of his own money into his general election campaign. Funds shouldn’t be an issue for Ravenel, who recently spent $1 million building a polo practice field on one of his Charleston estates.
Ravenel resigned as state treasurer after he was convicted on federal cocaine charges and spent nine months in prison, which is why most of the national media have paid little attention to this race.
But he also just starred in Bravo’s reality TV show Southern Charm as its central character. Viewers watched Ravenel grapple with his downfall, fall in love with a co-star, and have a baby. Whether they approved or not, South Carolinians were sucked in. News stories about Ravenel and the baby quickly rise to the most read spot on SC news websites. Many here believe he may have built a sympathetic following.
Ravenel doesn’t have to win to take out Graham. He just needs to depress Republican turnout with an examination of Graham’s record and pull 5 to 10 points away from Graham to upend the race. That’s not unthinkable. The state’s libertarian leaders mass on Ravenel’s facebook page, attracted by his mainstream libertarian message that levels the kind of legitimate criticism at both parties that earned Sen. Rand Paul a standing ovation at the University of California, Berkeley. Ravenel says he’ll target fiscally conservative, libertarian-leaning and unaffiliated voters.
Ravenel is also highly photogenic, well-spoken and has a history of devastatingly effective political campaign ads that propelled him from a virtual unknown to state treasurer. Ravenel’s father is a popular former congressman from Charleston. Charleston’s spectacular Ravenel Bridge is named after him.
Contrast that with Graham, who — after months of blanketing the state with positive campaign ads — remains so unpopular that he is struggling to escape the GOP primary without the humiliation of a runoff.
Even if he does, the animosity toward Graham among the roughly half of South Carolina Republicans who don’t support him is so strong that it’s unclear how motivated they’ll be to pull the lever for him in a general election, even if it appears that he could lose to a Democrat. Nine of the state’s GOP county parties have voted to censure Graham, most recently populous Charleston County, which did it for the second time.
So how would a Republican as unpopular as Graham fare against a Democrat? Democrats typically get at least 35 percent of the vote statewide in red South Carolina — unless they run against an unpopular Republican.
Democrat Vincent Shaheen pulled in 47 percent of the vote in his run against Nikki Haley in the 2010 governor’s race. At the time, she was a weak candidate tarred by scandal. Graham’s current disapproval ratings are higher than Haley’s were around the time of that race. With Ravenel in it, and Graham as unpopular as he is with his own base, some believe it’s possible that he could lose to Hutto if Ravenel reminds voters of Graham’s record, in particular his meeting with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood the same week they were burning down Christian churches and his votes for Obama’s two liberal Supreme Court nominees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
For now, Graham’s campaign is trying to convince voters that if he doesn’t win the Republican primary, one of his GOP challengers could lose to Hutto. But behind the scenes, some in the state’s GOP leadership fear it is Graham who stands the greatest chance of losing if he emerges from the primary.
For now, they are watching and hoping the Senate race doesn’t spin out of control.