[image-1]A group of business leaders in South Carolina are considering a plan to run a petition candidate for U.S. Senate in the event Lindsey Graham loses the June Republican primary to one of his four opponents.

“This is a contingency plan,” said Columbia attorney and former Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian, who says he’s been approached by unnamed individuals who asked him to research the law on how to proceed.

“I’ve been approached because of my background by some business people,” he says. “Neither Republican or Democrat. They’re concerned that if Lindsey would lose the primary to one of these — as they described them — ‘wingnuts’ that are running against him, that the state be in a position to field a petition candidate.”

Harpootlian declined to go into much detail and said he was hoping the plan would be kept under wraps. He also declined to say who had approached him for legal research, or who any potential candidate might be. He did say that the effort would not have anything to do with a potential third party bid by the American Party, a new moderate political organization organized by Democrat Jim Rex and Republican Oscar Lovelace.

Sources close to the plan said former Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges has also been in talks about helping with a fallback plan if Graham goes down in the summer, though not as an actual candidate.

“I have not been a part of any meeting to focus on that,” Hodges told the City Paper. He added, however, that he had “heard some discussion among a group of business leaders” about it.

Harpootlian says he’s researched the law, and should Graham lose the primary, any potential petition candidate would need to get 10,000 signatures by July 15 in order to get on the ballot. Since Graham’s election is in June, there would be little time to collect that many signatures — unless the candidate had some pretty dazzling star power.

“My understanding is that some independent people would be able to field a candidate — I can’t give you any names — that’s independent and would have resources to finance their campaign,” Harpootlian says.

Whether such an effort could be successful is in doubt. Any time a candidate who doesn’t represent one of the major parties enters a race it’s extremely difficult for them to win, says Winthrop University political scientist and pollster Scott Huffmon. “Uphill battle is just not enough of a cliche to describe how difficult it is,” he says. He adds however, that winning is “always made more plausible when it’s someone who has very high name recognition and a lot of wealth.”

Graham is currently facing four hard-right primary challengers who accuse him of not being conservative enough. They are state Sen. Lee Bright, political consultant Nancy Mace, abortion activist Richard Cash, and attorney Bill Connor. While none of the four has yet to gain significant traction, Graham allies worry about the possibility of a runoff election, where national groups could dive bomb the state with millions of dollars in attack ads, and mobilize get-out-the-vote efforts in the two-week blitz campaign to topple the longtime incumbent. In order to avoid that possibility, Graham would have to win 51 percent of the primary vote against a scattered field. A recent Winthrop Poll had him at about 45 percent.

On the other hand, if Graham were to win, former Republican Treasurer-turned reality TV star Thomas Ravenel of Charleston says he’ll likely run an independent bid against him. Ravenel hinted at a possible political comeback during Monday’s debut episode of Southern Charm. The Bravo show follows Ravenel and his entourage as they party hearty in the Holy City. Ravenel had been forced from statewide office in 2008 when a federal judge sentenced him to a brief prison stint after he was arrested on cocaine charges.

For his part, Harpootlian scoffed at the idea. “I don’t think there are 10,000 people who would sign a petition [for Ravenel],” he said. “Not unless he set up a booth at Myrtle Manor. Maybe he could get 10,000 drunks to sign it.” Myrtle Manor, filmed on the Grand Strand, is the setting of a different Palmetto State-based reality TV show that chronicles trailer park life in the Deep South.

One might wonder if Harpootlian and Hodges being linked to the plan could give the appearance of a Democratic Party move. The Democrats are having their own headaches in the U.S. Senate race with the curious candidacy of a man named Jay Stamper. The South Carolinian-by-way-of-Washington-State and former political prankster says he’s running against Graham as a Democrat, but he has hardly been friendly with the state Democratic Party machine. But Harpootlian stressed that when he says “independent” candidate he means just that, but as for who might be on board for a possible petition bid in the event Graham goes down in June, no one close to the plan is saying.

In the past, when South Carolina politicos have talked about the idea of an independent business leader able to a run self-financed campaign for one statewide office or another, Darla Moore’s name has often came up. The extremely wealthy and well-respected Wall Street financier has given money to both Republicans and Democrats, and her name graces the University of South Carolina business school.

Last April, The State newspaper asked Moore if she planned to get involved in the 2014 statewide races for governor or U.S. Senate.

“Not really,” she said. “My faith in elected office is so diminished that I don’t think it’s going to make that much difference, frankly. The system is so broken that one person or one election is not going to impact it.”

For Huffmon, anyone working on a possible plan to help a petition candidate get on the ballot between the June primary election and mid-July signature-collection deadline should be thinking about how early they should make any potential candidate’s name public.

“If they actually expect to pull this off they have to get this candidate and the logic for why it is important in front of the voters sooner rather than later,” he says. “At what point to do you start trying to get people aware of this?