WASHINGTON — Sen. Lindsey Graham won big in Tuesday's Republican primary, but South Carolina Democrats see a glimpse of hope in the results.
Graham swept away six GOP opponents, taking 56 percent of the vote. But 44 percent of Republicans voted for someone else.
"Lindsey clearly has very serious problems with Republican voters in this state. If they don't all come back, he's in big trouble," said Lachlan McIntosh, campaign manager for Brad Hutto, the Democrat facing Graham in the November general election.
Hutto, a longtime state senator from Orangeburg, is a decided underdog in South Carolina, a conservative stronghold where Republicans control state and federal delegations.
But his advisers and supporters, emboldened by the shocking defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia's GOP primary, are gearing up to convince Democrats in South Carolina and nationally that they have a shot at an upset.
"South Carolina is Republican, but not deeply. Democrats still have a big base," McIntosh said. "Republicans have very little margin of error here."
Graham's last election, in 2008, was a cakewalk. But even the unknown Democrat with almost no campaign money landed 42 percent of the vote in that race six years ago.
Hutto, an attorney, has been in the state Senate since 1996. This is his first run for statewide office. He won the Democratic primary after spending less than $100,000, and his fundraising is a fraction of Graham's $9 million.
Don Fowler, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said he doesn't expect anti-Graham Republicans to vote for Hutto in November.
"(Hutto's) chances are going to revolve around the people who did not vote in either primary, people who tend to be moderate," said Fowler, chairman of Fowler Communications in Columbia. "That's his hope."
There's also a Libertarian candidate running, Victor Kocher of Columbia, who could siphon away GOP votes.
Fowler, who donated $500 to Hutto's campaign last month, agreed the Democrat faces an uphill fight.
"The race might start off being one where you would expect the incumbent to win, but I think Hutto has the capacity to overcome that perception," Fowler said.
Matt Moore, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, commented on behalf of the Graham campaign and said Graham holds the record for most general election votes in state history --- more than 1 million in 2008. He said Democrats giving Hutto a chance should "keep dreaming."
"Senator Graham has strong support from people statewide who like that he fights for jobs, strong national defense, and the unborn," Moore said.
Political analysts in Washington expect South Carolina's two Senate seats to remain in Republican hands. The University of Virginia Center on Politics lists the state as "safe" for Republicans, and the Cook Political Report labels it "solid" for the GOP.
Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, said Hutto has a long way to go.
"It's going to be a tough year for Democrats, and probably a very tough year for Democrats in South Carolina," Duffy said. "He's a solid candidate, no question about that, but he's just running in a really tough environment."
South Carolina's top elected Democrat, U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, has thrown his support behind Hutto. Clyburn's campaign account gave $4,000 to Hutto's campaign, and his leadership political action committee added another $10,000, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
Graham's run for a third term is off to an auspicious start. He was once seen as vulnerable to tea party claims that he's not sufficiently conservative, but he trounced his primary opponents with a blitz of retail campaigning and advertising. As of May 31, he still had $3.7 million left to spend.
"They never scored any points against him," Duffy said of Graham's primary challengers. "The people who voted against him, they're not going to vote for a Democrat."