Immigration reform stance could sting Graham in primaries

Immigration reform's potency as a GOP incumbent slayer will be put to the test in South Carolina, where Sen. Lindsey Graham faces three primary challenges and probably a fourth.

If he blows them away, as currently seems possible, it could embolden Republicans to support legislation that gives illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. But if his race gets tough, GOP waverers would probably duck for cover, burying the chances of bipartisan reform.

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Graham is mistrusted by many conservatives because for years, he has worked with Democrats, notably on the 2008 bank bailout and climate change legislation, and to help President Obama secure his nominees to the Supreme Court. But immigration may be even more critical to the party base. 

“Immigration is a little bit of a boiling point — it's a very emotional issue. It always has been,” said Katon Dawson, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party who’s running an independent expenditure effort to help get Graham reelected.

“Sen. Graham didn't get any benefit from the electorate for trying to tackle the immigration issue,” he said. “Folks are going to come from out of state and spend a tremendous amount of money to run down Sen. Graham's record and misrepresent him, and we're here to push back.”

Deep-pocketed groups are gearing up on both sides for the race, and there are signs his opponents will have some national support.

The Senate Conservatives Fund, a deep-pocketed Tea Party group, told supporters in an email following the Senate’s passage of the immigration bill that “we obviously have some house cleaning to do,” and named Graham as one of three Republican senators it may target over the vote in 2014.

The group went up on Tuesday with a radio ad hitting Graham for his opposition to threatening a government shutdown to try to force a defunding of ObamaCare, a sign they’ll be involved in the race.

It’s unclear how serious a challenge Graham’s current opponents can pose, however. While there’s been no recent polling in the state, his approval rating with Republicans and GOP-leaning independents was well above 50 percent in late spring polling.

None of Graham’s opponents are well-known, and South Carolina operatives say they’ve got a long way to come politically — and could have trouble raising name recognition and money with so many others competing for attention in the race. If the field can hold Graham under 50 percent in his first election, the runner-up is unlikely to have anywhere near the resources to match Graham, who already has $7 million in the bank for the campaign, in a two-week runoff sprint.

Longtime Graham strategist Richard Quinn argued that in his polling there’s “broad support for immigration reform once the planks of the package are understood.”

“If you ask if they're for amnesty, they say no, but if they're explained the package Rubio and Graham and others supported, with the elements of the plan laid out, we found with Republicans in our state, it has broad support, around 70 percent,” he says. “Campaigns can be educational. There's broad support for what I call the Graham-Rubio plan.”

Quinn also says Graham’s approval rating has consistently remained in the mid- to high-50s, and while his disapproval rating spikes when he works with Democrats, it never rises past more than about a quarter of the electorate.

“Immigration is going to be as big an issue as people have resources to make it an issue,” says South Carolina-based GOP strategist Joel Sawyer. “If you polled on it, that'd likely be his biggest vulnerability right now, but whether or not his opponents have any money to push him on that is the big question.”

But groups may try to weaken Graham long before the election.

Senate Conservatives Fund Executive Director Matt Hoskins says the group is currently focused on the battle to defund ObamaCare — it launched ads hitting both Graham and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who isn't facing reelection this cycle, on the issue. But he suggested it’ll be involved later on to try to defeat Graham.

“This ad right here is all about ObamaCare, and our focus right now is solely on defunding ObamaCare. As for Sen. Graham and his reelection, there's no secret we'd like to replace him with a strong conservative,” he said.

Pro-Graham groups will be active as well, however. An organization headed by former Canadian Ambassador David Wilkins (R), a South Carolina-based politician, has already aired ads defending Graham’s work on immigration, as has Republicans for Immigration Reform, a D.C.-based group with a number of powerful backers.

NumbersUSA, an issue advocacy group focused on decreasing legal immigration to the U.S., has already been on the air attacking Graham on immigration, and group head Roy Beck promised it will stay involved in reminding voters about Graham’s work on the issue. But he admitted defeating the senator will be tough.

“He's very much a tool of the corporate lobbies and basically during last spring, you had the various lobbies saying, 'Don't worry, we'll be there for you.' They've promised to provide lots of money, and with that many billionaires, that gives you lots of guts to go after your constituents,” he said. “He's been trying to show himself as anti-Obama and really conservative on a lot of issues, like Rubio is. It's like they know it's not where the GOP base wants them to be, but if they can do that for their corporate friends and then show they're super-conservative on other things and hope voters forgive them, it very well may work.”