Can the powerful S.C. Senate Republican Caucus spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat state Senate candidates it doesn’t like?
That was the basic question in play Monday before S.C. Judge Robert Hood, who will decide whether to keep in place an October ruling by another judge that the GOP Caucus doesn’t have the power to spend unlimited amounts of money it raises from corporations in individual Senate races. The contribution limit per donor is normally $5,000.
In that October ruling, Judge Casey Manning ordered the Senate Republican Caucus to stop buying TV and online ads opposing Columbia Democrat Dick Harpootlian in his Senate District 20 special election race against Republican Benjamin Dunn.
At that point, the Caucus had spent nearly $200,000 to try to defeat Harpootlian, who ultimately won.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The State
Manning’s order was a preliminary — or temporary — injunction prohibiting the caucus from spending any more money against Harpootlian.
But lawyers for the Republican Senate Caucus now want Harpootlian’s case, and Manning’s preliminary injunction against the Caucus, to be dismissed. And on Monday, those lawyers — including Butch Bowers, Lisle Traywick and Robert Tyson — argued their case.
Caucus lawyer Traywick told Hood that in any case, the proper referee for the entire matter is not the courts.
“They are asking this court to declare violations of the State Ethics Act, and this is not the appropriate forum for that,” Traywick siad. “This matter belongs in the Gressette building (where state Senate offices are located) — not this court.”
Harpootlian “got what he wanted ... and then he won the election,” Traywick said. “What else is there to do?”
Hapootlian’s lawyer, Chris Kenney, told Hood that in their futile effort to defeat Harpootlian, Senate Republicans raised hundreds of thousands of dollars “in $10,000 or $25,000 increments” just 45 days before the election and began spending it on TV and internet ads and direct mailers to defeat Harpootlian.
“There’s something inherently corrupt about in what they are doing. They are taking special interest money in unlimited amounts ... and then they are going out and trying to dictate the outcome of the election,” Kenney told Hood.
At one point, Hood wondered if a continuing injunction against the Senate Caucus is necessary. “What if it never happens again?”
Kenney, who was assisted by attorney Joe McCulloch, told Hood that if the Senate Republicans would promise never to go over the $5,000 limit again, Harpootlian would agree with that action and it would be unnecessary to continue the court battle. “But they’re not prepared to do that,” said Kenney.“They want you to throw this case out.”
But Traywick again insisted the courts were the wrong place for the dispute. “This action belongs in the Senate Ethics Committee - not this court.”