Veteran legislator Larry Martin is getting pelted by negative ads in his bid for re-election to the state Senate.
The strange part?
The Pickens Republican doesn’t know who is behind the ads.
A 2010 ruling by a federal court is turning this year’s election season into a nightmare for some candidates as secretive groups – funded by unknown donors, allowed by the ruling to spend unknown, unlimited amounts of money – wade into key S.C. races.
Voters also could come to rue Election Day since they do not know the unknown donors’ agendas.
At least two such groups are working now to oust two incumbent state senators via TV ads and mail pieces.
In previous elections, voters could go to the S.C. Ethics Commission to learn who was bankrolling the groups’ election efforts and how they were spending their money.
The federal court ruling threw out the state’s definition of a “committee,” meaning S.C. political groups and parties no longer have to disclose their members. The ruling also allowed the groups to raise and spend unlimited sums of money.
‘Paint you as the devil’
This election season marks the first time since the court ruling that powerful legislative incumbents – Martin, chairman of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, and state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, chairman of the Senate’s Ethics Committee – are being the targeted by unfettered groups.
However, Republican groups took advantage of the court ruling in 2010.
• The S.C. Republican Party collected several donations that exceeded the previous $3,500 contribution limit, giving $49,500 to the party’s candidate for state superintendent of education, Mick Zais, and $25,000 to the GOP’s candidate for governor, Nikki Haley. Both won.
• The Republican Governors Association also used a $125,000 donation from cigarette-maker Reynolds American to buy TV ads criticizing Haley’s Democratic opponent for governor, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden.
This year, however, Republican legislators are in the bull’s-eye of the secret money.
“It never occurred to me that what I believe to be in excess of $150,000 in negative ads would be spent against me,” Martin said, who added his campaign is on track to spend about that same amount to counter those negative ads.
By comparison, Martin said he spent $60,000 in his last re-election bid, in 2008.
“We (incumbents) can’t possibly raise the kind of money it’s going to take if these outside groups want to influence races,” Martin said. “You can do it one time. But you can’t do it on a consistent basis.
“You can do all the retail campaigning you want, but one air assault like that can wipe out years of goodwill and years of dedicated service. They can paint you as the devil himself.”
Some help could be on the way for Martin, however. Haley is expected to endorse the incumbent today at an Upstate event.
It is up to the General Assembly to fix the election law.
In the last legislative session, Hayes, who now is a target of the secret groups, introduced a bill to fix the law. But his proposal died on the Senate floor as senators disagreed on the definition of “committee” and questioned whether the fix would stymie freedom of speech.
Hayes said senators will renew the effort again when the Legislature convenes in January.
“Any major ethics package this year has to include a definition of committee so we can get a handle on these attack groups that attack without any accountability,” Hayes said.
“This is no loophole. It makes a good bit of our campaign disclosure laws worthless. Any soft money is going under the radar right now.”
In Martin’s case, the TV ad airing against him is paid for by Liber-TEA, a limited-liability corporation registered with the South Carolina secretary of state’s office. The group was started in September by front-man Will Folks, a Columbia-based political blogger and former communications director for then-Gov. Mark Sanford.
Folks said Wednesday all of Liber-TEA’s donors are South Carolinians, but he declined to disclose their names. He added the group also is running radio ads against Hayes and is involved in an unspecified State House race and county council races.
Folks, a self-described libertarian and Haley critic, said the group’s purpose is to “educate voters about the hypocrisy of their so-called ‘conservative’ elected officials.”
Similar efforts are under way by another group, called the Conservative GOP PAC, that is distributing anti-Martin and anti-Hayes pieces through the mail. The group is not registered at the secretary of state’s office and, unlike before the 2010 court ruling, is not required to make any filings with the S.C. Ethics Commission.
As a result, it is unknown who is behind the group and what its agenda is.
Speculation as to who is behind the groups is running high, ranging from sweepstakes gambling interests to trial lawyers who want a new Senate Judiciary chairman to well-known GOP political operatives to libertarians intent on taking over county Republican parties.
Everyone has a theory, but no one knows for certain, said Chad Connelly, chairman of the S.C. Republican Party.
All Connelly says he knows for sure is that the groups are not affiliated with the state GOP.
Reach Smith at (803) 771-8658. Andrew Shain contributed.