“On June 11, “The Morning Buzz” radio show on WTMA 1250 AM in Charleston, South Carolina was bombarded with phone calls from listeners railing against Sen. Lindsey Graham, who the day before had secured the GOP nomination. Not a single pro-Graham call came in during the four-hour program. “I’m a Republican … but I’m voting Democrat this November,” one caller vowed. “Grahamnesty has got to go!” Despite this post-primary radio outrage, observers see few hurdles on the horizon for the incumbent senator. But “Grahamnesty”—so called because of his support of the 2007 Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act—finds himself confronting a challenge from an unexpected quarter this November.
A June 12 headline in Charleston’s Post & Courier read, “Dems seem to back conservative” in reference to Democratic primary winner Bob Conley, who barely secured his party’s nomination. (The final tally after a recount revealed that Conley won by only 986 votes out of the 144,460 cast.) “We’ve nominated a Republican in a Democratic primary,” said Conley’s challenger, Michael Cone. And indeed, the story revealed that Conley held a number of conservative positions, had only recently left the Republican Party, and even voted for Ron Paul in South Carolina’s presidential primary. But while Cone fumed, former Democratic National Chairman Don Fowler accepted Conley. “That’s the Democratic Party. We welcome anybody,” he said.
Fowler’s open-armed invitation could be comforting, as “Flattop Bob,” as Conley is often called, is as conservative as his Johnny Unitas-style haircut suggests. In private conversation, he uses the terms “populist,” “traditionalist,” and even “paleoconservative” favorably and frequently, and refers to Washington, D.C. as the “District of Criminals.” Over a pile of BBQ and collard greens (his choice), Bob explained his wardrobe woes: “First my advisers took my suit, then my long sleeves. It just doesn’t feel right for me to wear a short-sleeve dress shirt, Jack.” For the Catholic Conley, wearing his Sunday best is the norm: he tries to attend Mass every day. “The worst part is sometimes we have to be mean to him and tell him he simply doesn’t have time to go,” explains campaign manager Dan Castell, noting how impractical Conley’s church schedule is in the midst of a Senate run.
The Democratic establishment long ago wrote off this contest. Lindsey Graham is a well-funded incumbent in a deep red state. A weak field allowed the virtually unknown Conley, an engineer and commercial pilot, to take the nomination. Now Graham, much to his surprise, must compete with a Democrat who stands well to his right.”