COLUMBIA, SC — Republicans like their big-ticket incumbents.
U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, and Gov. Nikki Haley received big thumbs up from likely GOP primary voters in a Winthrop University poll released Wednesday.
Graham holds a commanding lead heading into June’s Republican primary to keep his seat, but he falls just short of capturing the 50 percent support needed to avoid a runoff.
Haley’s approval rating among likely Republican voters is rising as she approaches a re-election bid in November. Meanwhile, Scott, who was appointed to the U.S. Senate and never has won a statewide race, enjoys the backing of nearly 3 out of 4f likely GOP primary voters.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama had a lower approval rating, 4.8 percent, than Congress, 5.4 percent, among GOP voters in South Carolina. The president received 40 percent approval from all South Carolinians in a poll taken in October, while Congress registered just about 7 percent support.
“They have to vent their spleen at Obama,” Winthrop political scientist Scott Huffmon said of the likely GOP primary voters surveyed.
Graham received 45 percent of backing from 901 likely S.C. Republican primary voters polled this month by Winthrop.
State Sen. Lee Bright of Spartanburg was the next-highest voter-getter at 8.5 percent.
Graham’s three other GOP primary challengers who have filed fundraising reports – Easley businessman Richard Cash, Orangeburg attorney Bill Connor and Charleston public relations executive Nancy Mace – all failed to register at least 4 percent support. Columbia pastor the Rev. Det Bowers, a recent addition to the GOP field, was not included in the poll.
More than one out of three likely GOP primary voters, 35 percent, said they were undecided in the Senate race.
Graham just needs a handful of those undecided voters to fall his way to pass the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff, Huffmon said.
Graham’s campaign, which debuted its first television ad two weeks ago, said they were happy with the poll’s news.
“As we begin our campaign, we’re on very solid footing,” campaign spokesman Tate Zeigler said. “We’re going to run an aggressive grass-roots campaign on his strong record.”
But the Seneca Republican takes a hit from likely GOP voters who approve of the Tea Party, where his opponents are drawing support, Huffmon said.
Graham’s support among voters approving of the Tea Party is only 34 percent. Bright gets 14 percent of votes among Tea Party fans, offering a chance, perhaps, to make a run at the incumbent Republican senator.
Support from Tea Party Republicans adds to the totals of Graham’s three other primary opponents only slightly, nowhere near the gain by Bright.
More than half of the likely GOP voters polled approved of the Tea Party.
“If they want Lindsey Graham to lose, they need to organized,” Huffmon said. “This depends on how passionate people are. People saying, ‘I’m kind of mad at Lindsey,’ doesn’t mean that they won’t vote for him. They need specific reasons to vote against him.”
Just 12.4 percent of the likely GOP primary voters surveyed identified themselves as members of the Tea Party. But the Tea Party is a force in GOP elections because of the larger support its positions receive among all Republican voters.
“If a candidate raises the ire of this passionate 12.4 percent, they will be punished electorally by all those who approve of that 12.4 percent,” Huffmon wrote in the poll.
Winthrop’s poll also found:
• Haley’s approval reached 78 percent this month with voters in her party -- a high-water mark for the Lexington Republican in eight Winthrop polls released since she took office in 2011. Huffmon said Haley’s mounting GOP support shows “most of the uncertainty has dissipated among the base. She will turn out the base for the election -- and that’s what wins races.”
• Scott, who is up for election to the seat that Haley appointed him to after Jim DeMint’s resignation, has a 72.8 percent approval rating among likely GOP primary voters. The North Charleston Republican has no primary challenger but will face Democratic opposition in November.
The February Winthrop poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
Other Winthrop Poll findings released Tuesday
Winthrop asked likely Republican voters surveyed for its latest poll for their views on some social issues that the university polled South Carolinians on in October, a survey that included some likely non-voters.
GOP voters were more disapproving than South Carolinians overall of having a child out of wedlock, interracial marriage and adults smoking marijuana.
They also were more pessimistic about the direction of the country and more optimistic about the direction of South Carolina. Those results probably had more to do with Republican voters’ disdain for President Barack Obama – 93 percent disapproval in the poll – and their comfort with a Republican controlled state government – 52.6 percent approval, Winthrop Poll director Scott Huffmon said.
Nearly 3 out of 4 likely Republican primary voters said they did not think that generations of slavery and discrimination made it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.
One of 5 likely GOP primary voters surveyed thought former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, winner of the 2012 Republican presidential primary in South Carolina, would have beaten Democratic President Obama if he had won the GOP nomination, instead of Mitt Romney.