Politics & Government

SC Democrat says GOP illegally paid for ads linking him to socialist Bernie Sanders

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Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and the Rev. William Barber II took part in a discussion at Duke University on Thursday, April 19, 2018.
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Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and the Rev. William Barber II took part in a discussion at Duke University on Thursday, April 19, 2018.

Former S.C. Democratic Party chair Dick Harpootlian sued the S.C. Senate Republican Caucus on Friday, asking a judge to block its ads, which he says are being paid for with money that violates the state’s limit on donors.

Harpootlian is running for the District 20 seat in the state Senate, representing parts of Richland and Lexington counties. He is opposed by Republican Benjamin Dunn on the Nov. 6 ballot.

The anti-Harpootlian ads are being paid for with money raised by the GOP caucus “in increments of tens of thousands of dollars and in excess of what the candidates themselves could raise from their respective supporters whose financial contributions are limited to $1,000” per person, according to the lawsuit.

Harpootlian’s suit alleges that, according to one television station’s ad-buy records, the Senate GOP Caucus “purchased 103 ... ads at a total cost of at least $33,325” to boost Dunn’s Senate campaign.

Because the caucus is a “legislative caucus committee,” Harpootlian’s suit contends, it cannot spend more than $5,000 on Dunn’s campaign.

“It’s our position that the law limits the caucus to spending $5,000 of behalf of a candidate, and they have spent well over $100,000,” Harpootlian, a Columbia lawyer, said Friday. “We think the law is pretty clear on that.”

A hearing on Harpootlian’s motion for an order blocking the ads is scheduled for 2 p.m. Monday at the Richland County Courthouse.

S.C. Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, on Friday confirmed he was served with the lawsuit, tweeting at Harpootlian, “I get it. I definitely understand why you wouldn’t want voters to know you’re “comfortable with ... democratic socialism.” ‘

Dunn, a Ballentine attorney, said Friday that he had seen one anti-Harpootlian ad. He said he did not know the ads were being made, adding his campaign is not spending money on the ads.

“I’m campaigning for the seat. I’m not campaigning against Dick Harpootlian,” Dunn said. “He seems to be doing the same thing on his side. I’m not particularly interested in attack ads. On the other hand, I believe in freedom of speech. I don’t know if it’s necessarily appropriate for a court to block (the ads) unless there’s some clear violation.”

The lawsuit says the GOP Caucus began running Facebook and television ads about Oct 2. claiming Harpootlian was “too extreme” to hold public office. One ad, for example, likens Harpootlian to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, saying he — like the self-described democratic socialist — favors creating a single-payer health care system.

The ads — and mailers that were sent out days later — say they are paid for by the S.C. Senate Republican Caucus, the lawsuit says.

“In short, the Senate Republican Caucus is attempting to buy this election for its nominee in violation of the Ethics Act,” the suit says.

Harpootlian endorsed Sanders in his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 against Hillary Clinton.

Of the ads, Harpootlian said, “All of it’s inaccurate.”

“Am I for (Sanders’) $30-trillion (health care) plan? Absolutely not,” he said. “I’ve never been a socialist. It’s ludicrous.”

John Monk contributed to this report. Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter
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