Washington (CNN) – The already-crowded race to unseat South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham is about to get another candidate.
Det Bowers, a well-connected Columbia pastor known for his oratory, put weeks of rumors to rest on Monday and said he is joining the five-person Republican Senate primary field.
“No question,” Bowers told CNN in a phone interview. “I am definitely running.”
Bowers said he filed fundraising paperwork with the Federal Election Commission in recent days and plans to make a formal announcement about his campaign soon. He also commiserated with donors in Washington and Texas last month, people close to him said.
“I understand the complexity of the task, but have every confidence this is exactly what I ought to be doing this season,” Bowers said.
The task of beating Graham, while complex, is not as impossible as Graham’s allies have made it seem, derisively referring to his primary opponents in private as “the clown car.”
Despite having a long list of powerful friends and mounds of campaign cash – he reported more than $7 million last month - Graham’s vulnerability in this June’s Republican primary is an open secret in South Carolina.
Public polling has been spotty, but insiders are currently pegging Graham’s vote ceiling a primary somewhere in the low to mid-40s. And while two of the state’s senior-most Republicans, Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott, have had kind words for Graham, they have declined to formally endorse his re-election bid.
Conservative activists in the state tried and failed to defeat Graham during his last re-election bid in 2008, citing a range of ideological pock marks, chief among them his vocal support for comprehensive immigration reform. He’s facing the same doubts from the right this year, along with questions about his votes in favor of President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominees.
But several brand-name Republicans, including South Carolina congressmen Mick Mulvaney and Trey Gowdy, have shied away from challenging the wily Graham in the primary, leaving a tier of lesser-known candidates who have struggled to raise money and secure the backing of outside conservative outfits eager to unseat Graham, groups like the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks.
None of the four candidates gunning to beat him – businesswoman Nancy Mace, state Sen. Lee Bright, activist Richard Cash and attorney Bill Connor - have displayed the kind of political touch or fundraising muscle required to oust the two-term Senator.
The addition of Bowers to an already-splintered field makes the prospect of forcing Graham in a one-on-one runoff even more likely. If no candidate clears 50% in the primary this summer, the top two finishers will face each other in a two-week runoff election. The winner of the nomination is expected to cruise to victory in November in the Republican-leaning state.
South Carolina holds open Republican primaries, meaning Graham could potentially try to bring sympathetic Democrats and independents into the fold come June. But with no other heated primary contests on the ballot this year, GOP turnout is expected to be low, a scenario that would theoretically favor a challenger backed by die-hard conservative voters.
Bowers said he plans to make an issue of Graham’s support for “amnesty,” the conservative byword for a path to American citizenship favored by immigration reform advocates who want to bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and into the economy.
He also acknowledged the challenge of raising enough money to compete with Graham, but said he has secured financial commitments from donors.
Informed of Bowers’ decision, Graham supporters were quick to highlight Bowers’ past support for Democratic candidates. Bowers was the chairman of Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential bid in South Carolina.
“Det’s a former a Democratic political operative and pretty good at it, except for running Dukakis’s campaign in South Carolina. But he’s a known commodity in the Democratic world,” said Katon Dawson, a South Carolina GOP fixer who is running a super PAC supporting Graham.
“That being said, he’s moved into an evangelical world and will easily be able to wash off the Democratic stuff by being pro-life and speaking from the pulpit," Dawson added. "It’s going to be a competition.”