By RAJU CHEBIUM
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- A pro-business Washington group with a history of spending lavishly to elect arch-conservatives to Congress said Thursday it may target GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina for defeat in 2014.
Club for Growth, a free-market advocacy group ideologically allied with the state's junior senator, Republican Jim DeMint, doesn't think Graham is conservative enough and would support a Republican challenger if the right one came along.
"I don't think it's any secret that Lindsey Graham has not always represented a consistent, pro-growth record," Chris Chocola, the group's president and a former Indiana congressman, said in a telephone interview. "If an attractive alternative -- a viable alternative -- emerges, we'd take a look at the race. And I don't think we'd be alone in that."
Since its inception in 1999, Club for Growth has contributed almost $3 million directly to conservatives across the country and has spent an additional $13.4 million on ads and other efforts on their behalf, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
The center considers Club for Growth a "heavy hitter" among the various groups seeking to influence elections.
Club for Growth gives DeMint a lifetime score of 100 percent based on his voting record and refusal to work with Democrats. Graham scores 75 percent -- one of the lowest scores among Republicans.
"Lindsey Graham is always looking to cut a deal," Chocola said. "He's going to be advocating a deal to increase the size and scope of government and we don't think that that's pro-growth direction."
Graham's campaign spokesman, Scott Farmer, said Graham agrees with much of Club for Growth's agenda but they disagree on two issues -- China's currency policies and the future of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, which helped Boeing find a buyer for the 787 Dreamliner aircraft being made in a North Charleston plant.
"For years, the Club for Growth has absolutely detested Lindsey Graham's relentless drive to hold China accountable for its currency manipulation," Farmer said in an email. "The Club for Growth also opposed his outspoken support for reauthorization of Ex-Im Bank, even though it is an incredibly important issue to thousands of South Carolina workers."
For now, Graham is helping Mitt Romney's presidential campaign and the GOP's push to win control of the Senate, Farmer said.
"Come 2014, our campaign will highlight and run aggressively on Sen. Graham's distinguished conservative record that reflects South Carolina values," he wrote.
Club for Growth strongly supported four South Carolina GOP candidates for Congress in the 2010 election cycle. Club for Growth members and the group's PAC together contributed $130,000 to Rep. Jeff Duncan of Laurens County, $122,000 to DeMint, $86,000 to Rep. Mick Mulvaney of Lancaster County and $66,000 to Rep. Tim Scott of North Charleston, federal data show.
Club for Growth often supports the same candidates as Senate Conservatives Fund, a well-funded political action committee that DeMint set up to support candidates who share his commitment to limited government and free-enterprise principles.
DeMint couldn't be reached for comment but Chocola said the Senate Conservatives Fund is unlikely to oppose Graham.
DeMint has a policy of using his PAC only to oppose Democrats and promote conservatives seeking open Senate seats, Chocola noted. Though he has ideological differences with Graham, DeMint has said they are friends.
Matt Hoskins, a longtime DeMint aide who runs the Senate Conservatives Fund, said the group is focused on 2012 races.
"We haven't looked at 2014 races," he said. "We haven't talked to the Club for Growth."
Tea party conservatives generally haven't been happy with Graham, whom they see as too willing to compromise with Democrats.
Since Obama took office, Graham has adopted a stridently conservative tone and voted with fellow Republicans to oppose Democratic initiatives like the 2009 economic stimulus package and the 2010 health care reform law.
He also abandoned efforts early in Obama's term to work across the aisle on issues such as energy and immigration. Graham is now leading GOP efforts in the Senate to prevent deep cuts to defense programs.
No one has emerged to take on Graham in 2014, but Club for Growth's announcement that it would consider backing a hypothetical challenger -- which Chocola first made at a Christian Science Monitor media breakfast on Thursday -- could serve as a casting call, analysts say.
Graham had nearly $4.3 million in his campaign account as of June 30, according to the Federal Election Commission. A challenger would have to be well-funded and well-known across South Carolina to have a chance at unseating him, Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard said.
Graham also is popular in the state.
In a January poll conducted by Woodard, who worked on Graham's House campaigns in the 1990s, more than seven in 10 South Carolina voters said they liked him. Woodard said Graham is less popular in Upstate, the state's most conservative region, but not by much.
Chip Felkel, a GOP consultant, said Graham has worked to repair rifts with tea-party activists and is the candidate of choice for the state's business community.
Beating him would be "an uphill battle for anybody foolhardy enough to take that task," Felkel said. "If the Club of Growth has to put out a casting call, I'd say that the chances of them getting the right candidate are between slim and none."