An out-of-state political group has launched a radio and telephone campaign against Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, robo-calling South Carolina residents using an automated dialing method that some say is illegal.
In the calls, Americans for Legal Immigration asks listeners to call Graham and U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and “thank” them for supporting “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.
The group, which has endorsed state Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, in the June 10 GOP primary, opposes Graham’s support of a bipartisan immigration reform proposal that critics say will lead to more immigrants finding sanctuary, jobs and public support in the country.
Graham said current U.S. immigration policy has led to defacto amnesty for millions and must be updated. He said he favors increased border security, followed by reforms to guest-worker programs and a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
State law bans automatically dialed calls that deliver unsolicited, prerecorded consumer or political messages without assistance of a live operator, S.C. Republican Party chairman Matt Moore said in a memo sent out last month as a reminder to campaigns.
Graham’s campaign spokesman, Tate Zeigler, said of the automated calls, “We do’'t do illegal robo calls.”
Americans for Legal Immigration president William Gheen said his robo-calls comply with federal law. Gheen was not familiar with S.C. law. After reading it, he said he would turn himself in if any prosecutor decided to charge him.
He also said he would beat any charges.
“I feel quite confident in my ability to defeat this in a court of law,” Gheen said, adding he is defending his right to engage in political speech. “For our republic to function, people need to be able to communicate with voters.”
In the radio and automated-phone messages, Gheen encourages voters to “thank Congressman Cantor and Senator Graham on Election Day for supporting immigration reform amnesty! Graham and Cantor have proven that they will bring tens of millions of undocumented workers, students, and voters out of the shadows by changing our existing laws to accommodate them and those that employ them!"
“There is some reverse psychology going on,” said Scott Buchanan, a Citadel political scientist. The group is “all about stopping illegal immigration into America. It sounds like an endorsement, but what it is intended to be is a slam on Graham.”
S.C. GOP chairman Moore said Thursday he had not heard of any specific campaigns using robo-calls but wanted to remind others of the law in the memo that he sent out last month.
“The law is simple and clear,” he said.
The Americans for Legal Immigration PAC is a Raleigh, N.C.- based political group that had about $4,700 to spend at the end of March.
Gheen would not say how much money his group is spending on robo-calls and other advertisements in the state.
It likely is not a lot.
One benefit of robo-calling, Gheen said, is the ability to reach as many people as possible at little cost. Live callers cost “20 times as much,” he said.
Despite questions about their legality, Clemson University pollster Dave Woodard said robo-calls are common in the days leading up to an election, when candidates are trying to “force the name in there. You can send (voters) mail, or you can call them.”
Leaving a phone message is a far more effective way of communicating because people typically throw away unsolicited mail, he said.
Woodard added the state law banning robo-calls “is so poorly written that it's common knowledge that it can't be enforced.”
It also is unclear how often –if ever – a campaign has been penalized or charged for robo-calls.
Robert Cahaly, former S.C. Lt. Gov. Ken Ard’s campaign consultant, was charged with making illegal robo-calls in 2010 in connection with six S.C. House races. The S.C. Law Enforcement Division said the calls failed to identify who paid for them, a violation of S.C. law.
The charges later were dropped when a prosecutor questioned the clarity of the law.
Gheen said he has one request for anyone who plans to arrest him: “The only thing I ask is that they do it before Election Day, please.”