U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s six GOP challengers criticized the Seneca Republican on Saturday, saying he had failed to protect the Constitution during the Republican Primary campaign’s only debate.
Graham, who is seeking a third term in the Senate, defended his record, including voting in favor of President Barack Obama’s two Supreme Court nominees and working to help illegal immigrants become citizens.
The debate - the only of the GOP campaign - came 60 hours before polls open for Tuesday’s primary. It was sponsored by ETV and a group of S.C. newspapers, including The State.
Graham’s challengers hoped to score points in a race where they have fallen far behind the incumbent, who appears to have a chance of winning the GOP nomination without a runoff, according to a recent poll.
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The senator’s GOP opponents said change is needed in Washington.
“If you truly are a conservative, then it is not necessary to spend $7 million in advertising to prove it,” Columbia attorney Benjamin Dunn said, criticizing Graham’s campaign war chest, which has swamped his underfunded challengers.
State Sen. Lee Bright, who brought a contingent of supporters to the ETV studios for the debate, said he would have liked to support Graham for re-election. But sending Graham back to Capitol Hill with his willingness to compromise with Democrats “would be a catastrophe for this nation,” Bright said.
Orangeburg attorney Bill Connor added: “It’s not personal. You’re a good man, but I think we need new blood.”
Graham’s challengers said they wanted Congress to cut government spending, programs and agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education and the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare.
“Health insurance is not the government’s responsibility any more than it’s the government’s responsibility to feed me, house me or clothe me,” Easley businessman Richard Cash said.
Graham, who also opposes Obamacare, said he wants to “means test” Social Security and Medicare benefits for more affluent retirees since Americans are living longer, citing the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, whom Graham succeeded before the longtime senator passed away at age 100.
While the candidates all said they wanted to rein in spending, they would support federal spending to deepen the Port of Charleston.
“If you want to vote for someone who would vote like Jim DeMint, I’m you’re guy,” Bright said of the former U.S. senator from the Upstate known as “Senator No.”
Graham defended himself from criticisms that he is too willing to compromise, saying he must sit down with Democrats on occasion just like Republican President Ronald Reagan did. “Immigration” - for example - “is not a problem that is going to get fixed by yelling about it,” he said.
Cash was among Graham’s challengers who responded that amnesty is not the answer for dealing with undocumented immigrants. “I would say to those here illegally, you to need to go home.”
Columbia pastor Det Bowers said America needs to “remove the magnets” that attract immigrants to enter the country illegally and should no longer reward “lawless conduct.”
Graham’s foes also said they would use their standards in voting to confirm or reject Supreme Court nominees.
“A judge is not qualified if they don’t believe the Constitution should be interpreted according to original intent,” Cash said.
Bowers said a “litmus test for a Supreme Court justice is a right to life. If we don’t uphold that, we’ve lost our republic.”
Graham said the best way to ensure conservatives are nominated to the Supreme Court is to elect a Republican to the White House, since the president nominates justices. “The Constitution was not set up to make sure that we get all of (ours) and they get none of theirs.”
The S.C. race is being watched nationally because it pits a conservative mainstream Republican, Graham, against Tea Party-tinged challengers.
Asked about the Tea Party, Graham said he was the best qualified candidate to win money to fight radical Islamists and win changes to the federal health care overhaul.
“We have given away four (Senate) seats over the last four years because we nominated people who couldn’t withstand scrutiny,” Graham said, referring to Tea Party-based Republicans in other states who subsequently lost to Democrats in general elections.
“I’ll beat the Democratic candidate’s brains out,” said Graham. “They know it. They’re not going to going to spend 15 cents here.”
Cash, Connor and Bright said they were proud of their Tea Party backing and involvement. Charleston PR executive Nancy Mace said politicians who spend too long in Washington stop caring about voters.
“The Beltway insiders, if they were serious about making the changes necessary to turn our economy around, they would have done it already,” she said.
But Bowers said the aim is bringing different sides together.
“I think if God was here today and you asked God what party are you a part of, He would say, ‘I’m a party of ‘I am my brother’s keeper.’ ”