What to watch for in the South Carolina primary

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., at a hearing by a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee April 8, 2014 in Washington, D.C. Win McNamee/Getty Images

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

It wasn't supposed to be this easy for Lindsey Graham.

After championing a bipartisan compromise on immigration reform last year, the senior South Carolina senator and occasional usurper of conservative orthodoxy appeared to have guaranteed himself a spirited GOP primary challenge in his bid for a third term.

But while Graham has attracted no shortage of ire on the right -- and no less than six Republican opponents in Tuesday's primary -- he has run a smart and steady campaign, capitalizing on his enormous financial advantage to build a comfortable lead in the polls.

Graham may be in a commanding position heading into Primary Day, but there is still reason to pay attention as the votes are tabulated in South Carolina, a state whose politics are sometimes unpredictable and often compelling.

Here are four things to watch for on Tuesday:

1. Can Lindsey Graham avoid a runoff?

On Saturday night, the two-term senator shared the stage with all of his primary opponents. Amid every charge that he supported "amnesty" for illegal immigrants and was acting as a Democrat in disguise on key issues, it would have been easy for Graham to get dragged into the mud.

But he steered clear of the traps and remained above the fray, as he has done throughout the campaign, making a case that he is far and away the safest bet if Republicans want to keep his seat in November.

"We have given away four seats over the last four years because we nominated people who couldn't withstand scrutiny," Graham said, according to The State. "I'll beat the Democratic candidate's brains out.

That vivid promise appears to have resonated with GOP primary voters.

According to a Clemson Palmetto poll released late last month, the incumbent was at 49 percent, with his nearest competition -- state Sen. Lee Bright -- not even breaking single digits, with only 9 percent of the vote.

An informal survey of South Carolina politicos on Monday revealed a consensus that Graham has sustained his momentum down the home stretch and most likely will avoid a runoff.

"The turnout is going to be low, but I don't think there's any question that he'll get to 50 percent," predicted one South Carolina-based Republican operative.

2. If he doesn't top 50 percent, who finishes second?

If Graham does end up below that threshold and is forced into a June 24 one-on-one contest, don't expect a repeat of what has happened in Mississippi, where incumbent Republican Sen. Thad Cochran is on the ropes against his runoff opponent, Chris McDaniel.

Tea Party-backed groups have not been nearly as active in South Carolina in trying to take out Graham as they have been in Mississippi, and it is difficult to imagine any of his largely unknown and severely underfunded challengers catching fire in just two weeks.

But in the event that Graham does not reach the magic number, the identity of his opponent will be key to determining the tone the runoff campaign takes.

Bright is a libertarian-leaning firebrand, who cited Patrick Henry's famous "Give me liberty or give me death" quotation in announcing his candidacy. Among the most conservative and outspoken legislators in the state, he once introduced legislation to study the prospect of a South Carolina-specific currency and sponsored a separate bill to nullify Obamacare in the state.

If Bright gets into a runoff, he would no doubt gain some additional attention for his hardline views, but it is unlikely to make a difference in the ultimate outcome.

"This is a red state, sure," said South Carolina Republican consultant Chip Felkel. "But most reasonable people know that Graham is conservative, maybe not as far right as the wackadoodles, but pretty darn conservative."

3. Who will gain an early edge to succeed Gov. Nikki Haley in 2018?

Lieutenant governor's races don't typically generate much interest, but there is good reason to pay attention in the Republican contest to become South Carolina's next second-in-command.

This election will be the last time voters in the state elect their governor and lieutenant governor separately. Beginning in 2018, each gubernatorial candidate will select his or her running mate.

With Gov. Nikki Haley favored to win re-election but term-limited from running again in four years, whoever wins the lieutenant governor's race will have an early leg up on securing the state's top office in 2018.

Of the four GOP contenders for that post in this heavily Republican state, former state Attorney General Henry McMaster enjoys significant name recognition, while Mike Campbell -- the son of popular former Gov. Carroll Campbell -- is also well known.

Businessman Pat McKinney is another strong contender, and there appears to be a significant possibility that the contest will result in a runoff. The winner will face off against Democratic Rep. Bakari Sellers -- a young up-and-comer -- in November.

4. Will There Be an Atwater revival?

Eight Republicans are running for South Carolina education superintendent, but only one of them has a last name that requires no introduction in the state.

Sally Atwater -- the widow of legendary South Carolina Republican operative Lee Atwater, who managed George H.W. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign and helped pioneer the cutthroat style of campaigning for which the state is known -- is a special education teacher with experience in George W. Bush's administration.

One of Atwater's strongest challengers is Meka Childs, who was an education adviser to former Gov. Mark Sanford and has received the endorsement of Sanford's ex-wife, Jenny.

Childs and Sen. Tim Scott -- who was appointed by Haley in 2013 after Jim DeMint resigned -- both hope to become the first African-American to be elected to statewide office in South Carolina since Reconstruction.

Scott is likely to win his race in November to serve out the final two years of DeMint's term.

//

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

Comments