U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett has tapped his congressional account for television ads defending his D.C. record after his votes were questioned by a Virginia-based political group.
That Barrett is not running for re-election - he's a Republican candidate for governor - has opponents crying foul about the 60-second ads running statewide.
Election officials and attorneys say the practice is legal because Barrett speaks only about issues related to being a congressman, and is responding to the congressional-related criticisms of the Americans for Job Security ads. But observers say that the governor's race is the unspoken issue behind both ads, and that Barrett has found a way to tap $200,000 in congressional campaign money he otherwise would not have been able to transfer to his gubernatorial efforts.
"It's a strategic error" by those working against Barrett's governor campaign, said Chip Felkel, a Greenville-based political consultant unaffiliated with any of the campaigns. "They opened up the can of worms and he's taking advantage of it.
"All's fair and legal, love and war."
Barrett is one of four candidates running for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, a field that includes Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, Lexington state Rep. Nikki Haley and Attorney General Henry McMaster.
The Americans for Job Security ad questions Barrett's vote in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Programs that loaned billions of dollars to foundering banks. The ad also links Barrett to federal stimulus money and notes his $22 million in federal earmark requests.
Barrett's response touts grades from conservative-leaning interest groups and his opposition to President Barack Obama. The ad says only one congressman votes against Obama and the stimulus more often than Barrett, citing Congressional Quarterly.
Federal Election Commission spokesman Christian Hillard said members of Congress may spend campaign funds on expenses related to holding office. The key question, he said, is would this expense exist if Barrett were not a member of Congress?
"He's using his campaign funds to defend his record in Congress," Hillard said.
But former FEC and campaign-finance attorney Trevor Potter believes the ads might be considered an in-kind contribution to Barrett's gubernatorial campaign and a state campaign-finance issue. It is clear, Potter said, that Barrett is not running for his U.S. House seat again.
Cathy Hazelwood, attorney for the State Ethics Commission, said the ad is not a state campaign-finance issue because it never mentions the gubernatorial campaign.
"You've got to have some 'magic words' there," Hazelwood said. "If he's not saying 'vote for,' 'vote against,'" the ad does not cross state law.
A poll released last week shows a tight GOP field. McMaster and Bauer lead the pack, with Barrett and Haley slightly behind. Though not gubernatorial ads, Barrett's television spots could strengthen his position in his Upstate home territory while introducing him to Midlands and coastal voters who are less familiar with him.
"They should send a thank-you note (to Americans for Job Security)," Felkel quipped.
Reach O'Connor at (803) 771-8358.