The S.C. Senate GOP Caucus agreed Monday to suspend buying any new ads — on TV, online and via the mail — as a S.C. judge decides whether the caucus violated the state’s legal limit on donations in the District 20 Senate race between Republican Benjamin Dunn and Democrat Dick Harpootlian.
Circuit Court Judge Casey Manning is expected to rule by the week’s end.
Harpootlian — a Columbia lawyer and former S.C. Democratic Party chair — sued the caucus Friday, alleging it has poured tens of thousands of dollars from companies into ad buys for Dunn, spending beyond the state’s legal limit. The caucus is a “legislative caucus committee,” meaning it can’t spend more than $5,000 on Dunn’s campaign, Harpootlian said.
However, Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, who authorizes the caucus’ spending and testified Monday, disagreed.
“This, under the law, (is) not a contribution” directly to Dunn, said the Edgefield Republican, calling the ads “educational.”
One ad, for example, likens Harpootlian to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described democratic socialist who Harpootlian endorsed in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.
Citing a decade-old S.C. Senate Ethics Committee opinion, Massey said, in the 45 days before an election, a caucus can raise and spend as much money as it wants to promote and advocate for a candidate or to advocate against a candidate.
Harpootlian’s lawsuit says the caucus started running the ads about Oct. 2, just more than a month before the Nov 6 election.
“You can do things that you can’t do before the 45-day period,” Massey said, calling the Ethics Committee opinion “binding.”
“I’m a lawyer. Committee findings aren’t binding,” Harpootlian said after the hearing. “Laws are binding. Decisions by courts are binding.”
Harpootlian told reporters his goal is to end the flow of so-called “dark money” — money from undisclosed sources — into campaigns.
But Massey said the GOP Caucus discloses its donors. Instead, he said Harpootlian is trying to remove caucuses from elections, hurting candidates who do not have large campaign war chests. Massey said the GOP caucus is trying to level the playing field, between the multimillionaire Harpootlian and Dunn.
“The ads that we’re running against him are more effective than I thought they were,” Massey said. “He must be losing — or at least he thinks he’s losing — or else he wouldn’t have filed suit. Winning candidates don’t file lawsuits.”