The movement to replace Sen. Lindsey Graham with a fiercer opponent of illegal immigration gained strength on Monday when Columbia native Buddy Witherspoon brought his campaign for the Republican nomination to Hilton Head Island.
Witherspoon is a dentist and three-time elector in the electoral college and a representative at the Republican National Committee since 1996. He espouses traditionally conservative positions against abortion, gay marriage, gun control and higher taxes.
But the key issue of the campaign -- and one that has many in South Carolina looking for a replacement for Graham -- is immigration. Opponents accuse Graham and other senators of wanting to provide amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Witherspoon announced his bid two weeks ago and is setting out to prove he's more committed to routing out the illegal immigration problem.
"I feel like Lindsey Graham is too liberal for South Carolina and no longer represents mainstream South Carolinians," Witherspoon told a crowd of about 55 people at the First Monday Republican lunch club at Aunt Chilada's Easy Street Cafe.
Witherspoon, who gave the invocation before the meal and wore a "Pray for America" lapel pin, said his immigration plan starts with increasing border security, including the Canadian border and the nation's ports. He also wants to impose new sanctions against businesses that are caught employing illegal immigrants.
"If we put sanctions against the businesses, you cut off the money supply," he said.
Witherspoon said he supports the efforts of local governments to tackle the immigration issue. Beaufort County's lawful employment ordinance that will allow the county to audit employment records goes into effect next month. "Other counties can use the same thing as a scaffold to make it work," he said.
Witherspoon may be facing an uphill battle. Time magazine last year named Graham one of five up-and-coming senators, and he has received endorsements from all of the state's Republicans in Washington, including Sen. Jim DeMint and Rep. Joe Wilson, whose district includes Beaufort County.
Scott Farmer, Graham's campaign manager, declined to comment, but issued a statement saying Graham "has tremendous support from all areas of South Carolina and all corners of the Republican Party. From the hard-working rank and file grassroots activists to his Republican colleagues, Lindsey Graham's backing is wide and deep."
Witherspoon said his hopes for the Senate seat rely on grassroots efforts.
"This is going to be a bottom-up campaign," he said. "As long as I have a breath in this body, I won't compromise my principles."
The Republican Senate primary is on June 10.