COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham won South Carolina's GOP primary outright on Tuesday, defeating six tea party challengers who cast him as not conservative enough for this heavily Republican state to avoid a runoff.
Graham, 58, had about 56 percent of the vote in early returns, far more than what was needed to avoid the runoff. State Sen. Lee Bright came in second, with about 15 percent. Graham, who has been in office since 2002, had a hefty fundraising advantage: He has raised more than $12 million since his last re-election bid in 2008, while none of his opponents passed the $1 million mark.
Although Graham had no trouble dispatching his tea party challengers and their attacks that he wasn't conservative enough, other longtime Republican lawmakers have not had such good fortune. In Mississippi, U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran is facing a runoff with tea-party-backed Chris McDaniel later this month after both finished just shy of the 50 percent of votes needed to win outright. And in Virginia, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor — the GOP's No. 2 in the chamber — was dealt a crushing defeat by little known tea partyer Dave Brat, a college professor with no political experience.
The conservatism critique didn't matter to Ben Lister, a 48-year-old financial planner from Greenville who voted for the senator. Graham's opponents took several swipes at his willingness to work with Democrats, including his votes to confirm President Barack Obama's choices for the U.S. Supreme Court, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, both considered liberal justices.
"I know that some people are saying he should be more conservative, but what does that mean?" Lister asked. "I want a politician who actually thinks about the issues instead of going along with the crowd."
However, Graham also has been among the president's harshest critics on foreign policy. He and fellow Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire have called the president's plan to withdraw virtually all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by 2016 a short-sighted mistake that would embolden enemies.
During an emotional victory speech in downtown Columbia, Graham thanked his supporters and pledged to move forward on several key issues and to work toward winning a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate.
"To the people of South Carolina: Thank you. I will not let you down," Graham said. Meanwhile, Graham's fellow Republican U.S. Sen. Tim Scott won his primary by a wide margin, setting the stage for South Carolina to elect a black person to the U.S. Senate for the first time.
Scott was appointed to the seat in 2012 after Jim DeMint stepped down, and the general election winner will serve the remainder of DeMint's term. At his election night gathering in North Charleston, Scott said he hoped the election would focus more on substance rather than race.
"Voters today vote on issues and values," he said. The Democrats had two primaries of their own, though it's widely expected that the Senate seats will remain in the GOP's hands. State Sen. Brad Hutto won the nomination for Graham's seat, while Richland County Councilwoman Joyce Dickerson was nominated to face Scott.
Graham's other opponents included Columbia pastor Det Bowers, Upstate businessman Richard Cash and Charleston-area businesswoman Nancy Mace, the first female cadet graduate from The Citadel, South Carolina's military college. Orangeburg County attorney Bill Connor and Columbia lawyer Benjamin Dunn were also seeking the nomination.
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