U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham is positioned to act as a kingmaker in the high-stakes, early South Carolina primary after dropping out of the 2016 presidential race yesterday.
“He’s got clout in this state,” said South Carolina GOP strategist Chip Felkel, “but it’s going to be with the business community and more mainstreamRepublicans than with the far right.”
That means candidates like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio could stand to benefit in a race where Donald Trump holds a 19-point lead over second-place contender Ted Cruz, according to the latest Fox News South Carolina poll.
A well-timed Graham endorsement — just after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary — could be enough to crown a leading “moderate lane” Republican.
But Graham may hardly be the most highly sought-after Republican endorsement in South Carolina.
Both Gov. Nikki Haley — a rising GOP star who is often circulated as a potential running mate for the eventual nominee — and South Carolina U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, have yet to endorse anyone.
Haley is currently enjoying an 81 percent approval rating among South Carolina Republicans, according to a Winthrop University poll earlier this month. Scott has a 76 percent GOP approval rating, and 81 percent approval among Tea Party supporters, according to the poll.
“Of all the people that could have an influence on the race, I think Tim Scott is in a position to have the strongest influence,” said Robert Oldendick, a University of South Carolina professor. “I think ideologically, he comes closer to Cruz than anybody else, but he has not tipped his hand at all in terms of the process.”
Meanwhile, Graham, who faced six challengers during the GOP primary in his 2014 Senate re-election campaign, has just a 53 percent approval rating among South Carolina Republicans and 40 percent disapproval, according to the Winthrop poll.
But many leading South Carolina Republicans who had pledged support to Graham now suddenly find themselves searching for a new candidate.
Felkel said he thinks Bush could get the most traction out of a Graham endorsement.
By Chris Cassidy, Boston Herald
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