At least three political groups – including one backing Gov. Nikki Haley’s political agenda – are waging a six-figure campaign to topple state Senate Republican leaders in Tuesday’s primary.
Spending the most — $500,000 — is a political group, run by Haley’s political adviser, that hopes to oust powerful state senators who have clashed with the governor on roads, ethics reform and other issues or fallen out of her favor.
Other groups are supporting the Senate incumbents, including the S.C. Senate Republican Caucus, which will spend $100,000 to back two GOP state senators facing primary opponents.
The pro-Haley group’s effort to sway the Senate races is unusual compared to previous elections, said Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon.
“It's a lot more money than you would ever normally see in this type of race,” Huffmon said. “It is definitely symbolic of how important each side feels that the fight for the soul of the Republican Party in South Carolina is.”
A Great Day SC has spent or plans to spend at least $500,000 to back Haley’s agenda. That is more than the Senate challengers, endorsed by the governor, have raised for their bids combined, according to a State newspaper review Wednesday of campaign finance records and public filings for political TV ads.
Haley’s targets include Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, the most powerful legislator in the state, and Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, who the Republican governor has accused of blocking her ethics-reform efforts.
It's a lot more money than you would ever normally see in this type of race. It is definitely symbolic of how important each side feels that the fight for the soul of the Republican party in South Carolina is.
– Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon
A Great Day SC also has help from limited-government groups that are targeting the incumbent lawmakers.
Other state senators also are being targeted by groups as well.
▪ The Senate’s loudest conservative firebrand, state Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, faces opposition in his re-election bid from two lobbying groups — the S.C. Chamber of Commerce’s Good Government Committee and the Conservation Voters of South Carolina.
▪ Anti-abortion and pro-2nd Amendment advocacy groups are targeting incumbents in Senate districts around the state, including in Anderson, Edgefield and Lexington counties, senators say.
▪ An anonymous group called Free Speech Unites – its identity shielded by the state’s lack of disclosure rules for so-called “dark money” groups – has sent out a mail piece opposing Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson.
Dark-money groups opposed at least two state senators — Hayes and state Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens — in 2012. The emergence of the groups has driven State House attempts to force the groups to report their donors and agendas. But those efforts, thus far, have failed.
Bryant, one of the Senate’s most conservative members, said it is the first time he has been targeted by a group he could not identify.
“I have been targeted by liberal organizations who we know who they are, and I support their right to free speech,” Bryant said. “But a totally dark organization? This is the first time I've seen this.”
I have been targeted by liberal organizations who we know they are, and I support their right to free speech. But a totally dark organization? This is the first time I've seen this.
– State Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson
Banking on a great impact
The big spender in Tuesday’s primary is A Great Day SC, the pro-Haley group that can raise unlimited contributions.
As of April, Great Day had raised $515,000 in its attempt to reshape Senate leadership. The money came from six donors in six states, including one in South Carolina who gave $100,000.
The TV ads Great Day is running are a welcome boost for the candidates who Haley is backing, including Wes Climer, who is challenging incumbent Sen. Hayes in the District 15 GOP primary.
“Wes Hayes gets backing from every lobbyist, trade association and special interest in Columbia,” Climer said Wednesday while out campaigning. “The support from the governor is very helpful to push back on the special interests that are trying to buy this election. It’s always hard to beat a career politician.”
A Great Day is not alone in targeting the incumbents.
Americans for Prosperity, backed by the billionaire political activist Koch brothers, plans to send out at least five mail pieces criticizing Senate leader Leatherman’s record, said Chris Neefus, a spokesman for the group. The group also has about a half-dozen field staff working with volunteers to knock on doors to share its message.
The group, which opposes raising the state’s gas tax, is criticizing Leatherman, in part, of trying to pass a bill that would force groups attempting to influence an election to disclose their donors.
That proposal is an assault on donors’ rights of privacy and free speech, Americans for Prosperity says.
“The public deserves transparency from government and privacy for themselves, but Sen. Leatherman wants to flip it around,” said Mark Lucas, the group’s regional director. “Instead of working to chill speech, he should focus on getting some accountability for the dollars the state is spending.”
The S.C. Club for Growth’s political arm also is targeting incumbents.
The group has endorsed the opponents of Leatherman, Hayes and Rankin and one of Goldfinch’s opponents, Reese Boyd, paying for mail pieces in those districts. The group also gave $1,000 contributions to Richard Skipper and Climer, who Haley is backing in their efforts to unseat Leatherman and Hayes, respectively.
Protecting incumbent senators
Some targeted senators have received reinforcements.
The Senate Republican Caucus is spending more than $100,000 to shore up support for Hayes and Martin, the Republican chairman of the Senate’s powerful Judiciary Committee, said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield.
The caucus is sending out mail pieces supporting Hayes and Martin, and running television ads praising the senators’ records, Massey said.
The caucus decided to focus its efforts on the two districts after polling in every Senate district where an incumbent faced primary opposition.
“Sen. Martin and Sen. Hayes’ districts are the two where we thought we could have the best impact,” Massey said.
For Senate GOP leaders to get involved could mean they think Hayes and Martin are vulnerable or face a “credible threat,” Huffmon said.
Another group, the Palmetto Conservatives Fund, is spending $15,000 to run ads against businessman Scott Pyle, said David Wilson, who is buying ads for the group. Pyle, who Haley has endorsed, is challenging state Sen. Rankin.
The odds favor the incumbent state senators, Winthrop’s Huffmon added.
But a few, dedicated voters could swing an election, causing trouble for an incumbent, he added.
Haley is “definitely seeking to leave a mark on the S.C. Republican Party and remake it in the image of Southern conservatism that she’s been developing,” Huffmon said.
But Haley and her allies face “an uphill battle simply because of the strength of incumbency,” he added.
“A lot of people have trust in the incumbent, and seeing these attack ads will get a lot of long-time supporters out of their seats and to the polls.”
Remaking the SC Senate?
A Great Day SC, the political group taking aim at Gov. Nikki Haley’s state Senate opponents, has poured more than $500,000 into four races, including three where Haley hopes to oust long-time GOP senators. A look at those contests, how much the candidates had raised and how much they had left to spend, heading into June. (Candidates who have not raised $10,000 are excluded.)
▪ Sen. Wes Hayes: $184,058 raised; $34,963 left to spend
▪ Haley’s pick – Wes Climer: $71,067 raised, including $15,000 in a loan and personal money; $42,747 left to spend
▪ Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence: $1.2 million raised, including $750,000 loan; more than $1.2 million left to spend, including money left over from previous campaigns
▪ Haley’s pick – Richard Skipper: $96,090 raised, including $31,000 in personal money; $65,983 left to spend
▪ Sen. Luke Rankin: $188,485 raised; $361,951 left to spend, including money left over from previous campaigns
▪ Haley’s pick – Scott Pyle: $182,268 raised, including a $100,000 loan; $130,570 left to spend
S.C. Senate District 34
▪ S.C. Rep. Stephen Goldfinch: $228,980 raised, including a $100,000 loan; $149,369 to spend
▪ Haley’s pick – Reese Boyd: $83,163 raised, including a $50,000 loan; $71,684 left to spend