Primary challenger yet to emerge for Graham

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) might be vulnerable to a primary challenge in 2014 — but it’s unclear who, if anyone, might step up to run against him.

South Carolina state Sen. Tom Davis (R), whose name has been floated as the most likely to challenge the two-term senator, downplayed the likelihood he’d run, and no one else has shown any interest in mounting a bid despite some conservatives’ unhappiness with Graham’s record.

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“We need somebody in South Carolina who will take on Lindsey Graham and be more along the lines of Sen. Jim DeMint [R-S.C.],” Davis told The Hill. “It may not be me. It probably won’t be me.”

Davis, who was former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s (R) chief of staff, said that “three or four” national conservative groups had reached out to him about a possible run and that he had “very informal conversations” with them. 

But he emphasized that he was focused on his work in the state Legislature and said people had jumped to conclusions about his intentions because he’s been publicly critical of Graham and was involved in helping Tea Party candidates in state House races this election.

“People see me traveling across the state, working for other candidates, and see me criticizing the senator, and they try to connect the dots,” he said. “I’m just focused entirely on the 2013 legislative session in Columbia. It’d be a breach of trust to those who elected me if I take time off, try to raise money and travel across the state.”

Davis didn’t rule out a future run, however, and said Graham “should be primaried.” 

It’s still very early in the election cycle, and other candidates could emerge. But for a while now Graham has been viewed as having a target on his back from national conservative groups, saying last year he expected to face a challenge, making the nonexistent field notable.

Graham’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

GOP operatives in the state say that while Graham is far less popular with the party base than DeMint, he’s done much to repair his standing with the South Carolina conservatives.

“My polls are showing that Lindsey is fairly secure,” said GOP pollster and Clemson University Professor Dave Woodard, who worked for both Graham and DeMint early in their careers. “Anyone who takes him on would have to be able to appeal to a base that is alienated. I think at one time they were but they’re not right now … I don’t sense there’s any chinks in his armor.”

Woodard said that Graham’s standing with GOP primary voters had slipped during 2009, when he’d done some initial work with Democrats on immigration and climate change legislation.

Davis and some other conservatives criticize Graham for those moves, as well as his votes for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees and recent comments that he might be willing to violate his pledge to Grover Norquist’s group not to raise taxes “for the good of the country” and to get deficit spending under control.

But Graham has been a leading critic of Obama on foreign policy, attacking him on the looming defense cuts that are part of the “fiscal cliff” as well as his handling of the deadly attack against the U.S. Consulate in Libya. He’s also known as a tireless campaigner and has more than $4 million in the bank for the race. Even Davis admitted he’d been very dedicated to constituent services.

While Graham might be involved in upcoming immigration negotiations, the issue might not be as toxic as it once was, following an election in which Hispanic support for Democrats was a significant reason for the GOP’s struggles.

Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) told The Hill that Graham was working on immigration for “what he believes are the best interests of his party” and “to help build a better America,” and that he didn’t expect that work would hurt him with primary voters. He also ruled out a bid against the senator before declining to comment further on the race.

“I’m about Tim Scott for Congress 2014 after I prove myself to voters in 2013 — that is my only objective,” he said.

Republicans familiar with the state said no other lawmakers have made any moves toward a run, though Davis mentioned he thought Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) could be a strong candidate for the race. 

One other reason up-and-coming Republicans might not be interested in a run against Graham: DeMint has not committed to running for a third term in 2016, though he seemed to soften an earlier pledge not to run last week, saying he’s “not ruling anything out.”Former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson, a friend of Graham’s who plans to be involved in some capacity in his reelection campaign, said that the senator and his allies “always expect a fight” but predicted Graham would be fine.

“Lindsey’s always done what he thinks is right. I know that causes some heartburn — but that’s leadership. Jim’s the same way. Both have never lain awake worrying about their political careers, I don’t think. They don’t poll and focus-group everything,” he said. “This is a pretty mavericky state.”