November 23, 2012

SC legislators vow to rein in secret groups that tried to unseat them

The groups’ two top-targeted lawmakers, Sens. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, and Wes Hayes, R-York, chairmen of the Senate Judiciary and the Ethics committees respectively, crushed their opponents and won re-election.

Secret groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to oust a handful of State House leaders in the elections earlier this month. But they failed.

The groups’ two top-targeted lawmakers, Sens. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, and Wes Hayes, R-York, chairmen of the Senate Judiciary and the Ethics committees respectively, crushed their opponents and won re-election.

Now, the question is will anyone fix the law that allowed the groups to operate in secret. Legislators vow they will, but a spokesman for one of the groups equally is adamant it will not go away and, in fact, will target more S.C. politicians, including first-term Republican Gov. Nikki Haley.

A 2010 ruling by a federal court threw out the state’s definition of a political ‘‘committee” and most of the state’s rules on campaign spending. That allowed the secret groups, funded by unknown donors with unknown agendas, to wade into key races, spending unknown and unlimited amounts of money.

Will Folks, spokesman for one of the Liber-TEA group that targeted Martin, Hayes and others in TV and radio ads, said the efforts failed because Columbia’s political establishment stepped in and helped the incumbents.

“Candidates like Larry Martin and Wes Hayes received a lot of special-interest support from their masters in Columbia, including the backing of this state’s failed education establishment, the so-called ’business community’ and the environment lobby,” said Folks, a self-styled libertarian and bombastic political bomb thrower.

Some groups — establishment inasmuch as their names and agendas, unlike Folks’ Liber-TEA, are knowable to voters — did support the two embattled state senators.

Martin’s most recent political financial disclosure form includes a $500 donation from the National Federation of Independent Business, an S.C. small business group; $750 from the Conservation Voters of South Carolina PAC; and $500 from the S.C. Builders PAC.

Both Martin and Hayes also were endorsed by the state Chamber of Commerce.

Hayes also received about $1,500 this year from the S.C. Education Association. Both men received money from the Leaders in Education Administration PAC.

However, Hayes disagrees with Folks’ assessment as to why the Rock Hill Republican won re-election.

“Groups may have been supportive, but I think it was the people in the district making up their own minds,” said Hayes. “Most of the money I raised was from people in my hometown area.”

Martin attributes his win to knowing his constituents and leveling with them on the issues.

“No one knows your district better than you do. And in my case, living there all my life, I know what works in terms of message. And the people of Pickens County know me,” said Martin, who spent money on ads to counter Liber-TEA’s ads and circulated his cell phone number to voters so they could call him with any questions caused by the “negative” ads.

“That put a big bucket of cold water on what they were trying to sell,” said Martin, who was accused of exorbitant travel expenses and taking advantage of the state’s pension plan for lawmakers in Liber-TEA advertising.

Martin and Folks agree that Gov. Haley’s endorsement of Martin had an impact.

Luckily, for Martin, that endorsement came while it still had some value. Fellow Republican Haley endorsed Martin the day before she revealed an international hacker may have stolen information from 4.5 million personal and business S.C. tax returns — a revelation that shifted the news cycle away from the elections and tarnished Haley’s political clout.

It’s unclear whether there is a future for the secret groups.

Hayes and other lawmakers are vowing to rewrite the state definition for “committee” and close the loophole that allows the groups to operate.

“We seem pretty united within the (Republican) caucus, and the Democrats feel the same way, that this loophole must be closed,” Hayes said.

Folks vows that Liber-TEA “isn’t going anywhere,” adding Haley — a onetime ally, now a mutually acrimonious foe — will be a new target for the group.

Another group, called the Conservative GOP PAC, also distributed anti-Martin and anti-Hayes pieces through the mail.

The group is not registered at the S.C. Secretary of State’s office, no longer under the state’s current almost-anything-goes political financing laws. As a result, it is unknown who was behind the group and whether it will continue its efforts.

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