In her 14-minute kickoff speech, Nancy Mace never once uttered the name of the senior South Carolina Republican senator she’s aiming to oust.
But the 35-year-old public-relations consultant did name-check Jim DeMint, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Mike Lee—vividly illustrating the anti-Washington Tea Party campaign template she’ll attempt to emulate in her primary challenge to Lindsey Graham.
“Unfortunately our senator has a track record of trusting this government, of working to grow this government,” Mace told a breakfast meeting of Republican activists at her announcement Saturday. “I don’t think he’s a bad person, I just think it’s the bad policies of a senator.”
The daughter of a retired Army brigadier general and first female to graduate from the Citadel, Mace is impressive at first glance. She appeared at ease mingling with the regulars at the Berkeley County Republican breakfast, spoke with a comfortable confidence from the American Legion podium while avoiding red-meat demagoguery, and seemed well aware of the task she had just undertaken.
“This is not going to be easy,” she told me afterward. “This is going to be a challenge for anybody who jumps into this race.”
Even fans of the second-term Graham concede he should be ripe for a Tea Party picking, given his strong advocacy for immigration reform, his past support for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees, his sponsorship of cap-and-trade legislation, and his general willingness to work with Democrats. His approval rating among Republicans hovers in the low 60s, a number that’s soft if not alarming.
“The more time voters have to learn about Graham’s big-government record, the more vulnerable he becomes, similar to the way the Ted Cruz race in Texas played out.”
“We need to get rid of him,” snapped John Stauffer, a Summerville Republican wearing a FairTax T-shirt at Mace’s rollout. “Lindsey Graham is a good conservative 85 percent of the time. Fifteen percent of the time he’s a terrible conservative, but that 15 percent overrides everything else.”
Yet the initial hurdle Mace and the anti-Graham contingent faces in the Palmetto State is unity.
Mace is likely just one of Graham’s three primary opponents, a mathematically arduous scenario for knocking off a well-known incumbent sitting on more than $6 million.
As far as Team Graham is concerned, the more ankle-biting opponents join the fray, the better.
So the first test of the right’s might will be whether it chooses to coalesce around one standard-bearer.
“At some point, I think that the state of South Carolina will have to unite and rally around one person,” Mace told me, when I asked her about the ramifications of a large primary field.
Ten months before the June 2014 primary, the conservative groups with the most firepower are still surveying their options.
The Club for Growth will say only that it is “watching the race.” The Dick Armey–founded FreedomWorks asserts it is “working with grassroots activists to find the best alternative.” The Tea Party Express hasn’t decided whether to get involved.
But representatives of all three groups have met with Mace, in addition to the previously announced Richard Cash, who lost a 2010 congressional primary, and state Sen. Lee Bright, who plans to enter the Senate contest in the coming weeks.
Mace, perhaps regrettably, told me the first call she received about getting into the race came from Washington. She wouldn’t disclose who was on the other end of the line.
Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of FreedomWorks, says South Carolina’s runoff system, requiring that a candidate pull more than 50 percent of the vote to advance without one, will play to their advantage.
“The more time voters have to learn about Graham’s big-government record, the more vulnerable he becomes, similar to the way the Ted Cruz race in Texas played out,” Kibbe said.
The 2010 Cruz race isn’t a perfect analogy, as it was an open seat lacking an incumbent. But the old idea that a flush war chest and near-universal name recognition make for a slam-dunk GOP primary has been vanquished repeatedly in the last two election cycles.
There’s also a dearth of opportunities in 2014 for conservative groups to leave a mark. Through the arc of a campaign, Graham’s high media profile, bolstered by his ubiquitous presence on Fox News, could become a double-edged sword. (Graham declined an interview through a spokesman.)
If conservatives are seeking the brightest contrast, Mace may be their best option.
Aside from being a woman with military cred, she’s 24 years Graham’s junior, a self-described “Citadel bulldog” who would fit into the fresh-faced new generation of conservatives roiling Capitol Hill.
She declined to say whom she supported in the 2012 presidential primary, but her ties to Ron Paul’s legion of supporters is well known, and the former congressman has already hinted that he’s likely to endorse her. Additionally, Billy Hall, treasurer of the GOP Liberty Caucus, told me Mace backed Ron Paul strongly in 2012 and will likely sign on to Rand Paul's presumed 2016 endeavor.
Whether she can convince his son Rand to back her endeavor publicly is unclear, especially given the 2016 repercussions such a blessing would have in South Carolina, a politically crucial state. (A Paul confidante says it's unlikely.)
But while Mace smartly steered clear of launching any direct barbs against Graham in her initial outing, she made clear she hopes to join the band of rabble-rousers of whom Senator Paul is seen as the leader.
“I think that Sen. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and Mike Lee ... I think that the American people are looking for someone to join that leadership up there,” she said. “I see this as a bigger battle. It’s about folks who go up there and become part of the establishment.”
But before Mace can storm the gates of the “establishment,” she must win the audition for the primary within a primary, a message she received on her first day as a candidate.
“It’s got to boil down to one. We’ve got to find out which one of these three—and I told Nancy this a few minutes ago—we’ve got to make a decision which one of these three is going to be the horse,” said Tony Piscatella, a state GOP committeeman. “It’s going to be tough, it’s not going to be easy.”