Thursday, on Eric Bolling’s new CRTV show “America,” a door was opened for what could well become the toughest primary challenge of Sen. Lindsey Graham's political career.
Former South Carolina gubernatorial candidate John Warren, a conservative businessman from Greenville, S.C., told Bolling in an interview that he is "definitely considering" running against Graham, R-S.C., in the 2020 Republican primary for U.S. Senate.
"We live in a great conservative state; we deserve two conservative senators," Warren said. "And we only have one in Tim Scott."
Bolling didn't want to take a non-answer for an answer, so he pushed Warren to give a yes or no. Warren wouldn't commit to running, but Bolling did get Warren to admit he could run a statewide race against Graham if he wants to.
"I had a great campaign team this last time, and we feel like we have the infrastructure in place, so we'll see what happens," Warren said.
Last week, Warren lost his first statewide primary race to South Carolina's incumbent Governor Henry McMaster. But at just 39, with a young family, a successful real estate business, and the coveted status of being a political outsider in the age of Donald Trump, he would be a candidate Lindsey Graham would have to take seriously.
That said, Graham is an electoral juggernaut and the cause of severe frustration for conservatives.
The three-term senior senator from South Carolina has never lost an election, despite campaigning in a deep red state with a voting record that does not represent his constituency’s conservatism. On the campaign trail, he walks and talks like a conservative. In office, Graham likes to work with Democrats in support of amnesty for illegal aliens, backs pro-life legislation that’s doomed to fail while staying silent on bills that make the personhood argument, calls for a far-reaching foreign policy interventionism, and votes for trillions of dollars of government spending while fighting plans to balance the budget.
Yet starting in 2002, Graham has been elected to the United States Senate three times. He wins partly because South Carolina is an open primary state and Democrats can cross over into the Republican primary to keep him and his liberal “F” voting record in office, since that’s the best they can get statewide. Partly he wins because his primary challengers are too unknown and too many. Last round in 2014, six Republicans lined up to challenge Graham, split the vote, and lost humiliatingly. Graham snatched a 56.4 percent majority.
That's not to say Graham is invulnerable. He has one of the highest disapproval ratings of any United States senator, something Warren once noted after his primary opponent, McMaster, referred to Graham as South Carolina's "favorite son" during one of the debates.
“Thousands of conservatives across the state would agree that Lindsey Graham is not our favorite son,” Warren said, showing he's more than willing to call out Graham for failing to support conservative priorities in office.
The primary election will be held in 2020. A conservative who wants to beat Lindsey Graham will need to be able to run a statewide campaign operation. He or she will need statewide name recognition. And the candidate will have to have strong conservative credentials to unite the base around his or her campaign.
In Warren’s favor is his background as a self-made millionaire, a political outsider, and demonstrated success as a candidate.
"He (Warren) started this race with literally zero name recognition statewide," Furman University political scientist Danielle Vinson told The State. "The fact he made it to the runoff (is impressive). He worked really hard, real fast, and you can’t chalk it up to just money."
"Something about his message and his background resonated with GOP primary voters, and generally made a positive impression on people, which bodes well for him if he wants to run for another office," Vinson added.
But the same force that helped McMaster win over Warren could come into play again in Graham's favor in 2020, namely: President Donald Trump. Trump strongly endorsed McMaster in the 2018 gubernatorial primary and held a rally in South Carolina for him on the Monday before the election. The president is overwhelmingly popular among Republicans in the Palmetto State, and his endorsement or opposition carries weight. For example, Trump endorsed against incumbent Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., before the primary because Sanford had made comments opposing the president's tariff policies and criticizing his character. Despite Sanford's conservative voting record in support of Trump's agenda, he lost the primary.
If Trump supports Graham for re-election, his incumbency and the fact that the president will be on the ballot as well in 2020 would be clear advantages making a primary challenge extraordinarily difficult. However, Graham himself was anti-Trump before the 2016 election, once referring to Trump as a "jackass." Graham has also vocally opposed the president's immigration policies. If Trump were instead to endorse a primary challenger like Warren against Graham, increased voter turnout during the 2020 campaign in support of Trump's re-election could provide the surge necessary to kick the nation's top RINO out of office.
It's too early to tell if Warren can beat Graham. The primary campaign won't start for another year and a half, and Warren has not committed to running. But conservatives should keep their eyes on John Warren.
And Lindsey Graham should lose sleep at night.
Editor's note: The title of this piece has been amended to better reflect the content.