ROCK HILL — U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham holds a commanding lead in the GOP primary to keep his seat in June, though he fell short of capturing 50 percent support to avoid a runoff, a poll released Wednesday found.
Meanwhile, Gov. Nikki Haleys approval rating among likely Republican voters is rising as she approaches a re-election bid in November, the Winthrop University poll found. And U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, who also has a fall election, enjoys the backing of nearly three out of four GOP supporters.
In his race, Graham received 45 percent of backing from 901 likely S.C. Republican primary voters polled this month by Winthrop.
State Sen. Lee Bright of Spartanburg was second in the field with 8.5 percent.
The three other challengers who have filed fundraising reports -- Easley businessman Richard Cash, Orangeburg attorney Bill Connor and Charleston PR executive Nancy Mace -- all failed to register at least 4 percent.
More than one out of three likely primary voters, 35 percent, said they were undecided. Even if all undecided voters were added to Brights total, he would not surpass Grahams backing.
Lindsey Graham is not in real trouble simply because his share is below the 50 percent runoff threshold, Winthrop political scientist Scott Huffmon wrote. The vast majority of undecided could be distributed to the other candidates and, assuming Graham gets some share, it could easily be enough to put him over 50 percent.
But the Seneca Republican is not completely safe either since he is facing a challenge from a group of candidates associated with the Tea Party, Huffmon said.
The senators support among voters approving of the Tea Party falls to 34 percent. Bright gets 14 percent of votes among Tea Party fans.
The other three candidates add to their totals only slightly but nowhere near the gain by Bright. More than half of voters polled approved of the Tea Party.
This is clearly a place where support for (Bright), and opposition to Graham, can be mined, Huffmon wrote. The other candidates likely suffer from a lack of statewide name recognition, a situation that may begin to change as we approach the official date when filing for the primary begins on March 16.
Columbia pastor Det Bowers, a recent addition to the GOP field, was not included in the poll since he has not announced any fundraising.
Just 12.4 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as members of the Tea Party but their well-publicized organization makes them a force in elections because of the broader general support they receive among all Republicans.
If a candidate raises the ire of this passionate 12.4 percent, they will be punished electorally by all those who approve of that 12.4 percent, Huffmon wrote.
Winthrops poll also found:
Haleys approval reached 78 percent this month with voters in her party -- a high mark for Haley in eight Winthrop University polls released since she took office in 2011.
Scott, who is up for election to the seat he filled last year after Jim DeMints resignation, has a 72.8 percent approval rating. The North Charleston Republican has no GOP challenger.
Winthrop also asked the Republican voters for their views on some social issues sought from South Carolinians polled in October, which included some likely non-voters. GOP voters were more disapproving of having a child out of wedlock, interracial marriage and adults smoking marijuana. They were more pessimistic about the direction of the country and more optimistic about the direction of South Carolina.
Nearly three out of four Republican voters said did not think that generations of slavery and discrimination made it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.
One of five GOP voters believed that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, winner of the 2012 Republican presidential primary in South Carolina, would have beaten Democratic President Barack Obama if he won the party nomination instead Mitt Romney.
Speaking of the president, he received a 5 percent approval rating from Republican voters, less than one percentage point above Congress. Obama received 40 percent approval from all respondents in Winthrops October poll.
The February poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percent.