Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: A new group of carpetbaggers, a familiar MO

Chairman of the board of Americans for Prosperity David Koch speaks at a 2015 summit.
Chairman of the board of Americans for Prosperity David Koch speaks at a 2015 summit. AP

IN HER FIRST Senate race, Katrina Shealy got more than half of her campaign donations from Howie Rich, the New York multimillionaire who spent several years trying to buy himself a nice little Southern Legislature. In her follow-up race, she was bankrolled by the out-of-state donors to Gov. Nikki Haley’s unlimited-donations Movement Fund.

Now she tells reporter Cassie Cope that the anti-gas-tax campaign by Americans for Prosperity is dangerous because “We can’t let some out-of-state special-interest group come into South Carolina and dictate how we do business.”

I don’t mean to pick on Sen. Shealy, who is absolutely right and hardly alone. Sen. Larry Grooms got some Rich money in 2012 and now says that having a couple of billionaires underwriting campaign efforts “limits the ability of having free and open speech.” I suspect that if we talked to more Republican senators we could find similar revelations.

This new-found concern about deep-pocketed special interests helps explain why we keep having this problem with carpetbaggers trying to impose their will on our state: Legislators look the other way when outside interests support them. They only recognize the danger when they become the targets — as they all eventually will.

Think of it as our lawmakers’ version of Martin Niemoller’s poem: First they came for the moderate Republicans, and I did not speak out, because I was a conservative. Then they came for the conservatives, and I did not speak out, because I was a libertarian.

The first major-money special interests who tried to buy our Legislature were actually our own home-grown video poker barons, who targeted anyone who tried to make them obey our laws. Too many Democrats agreed with them and fought GOP attempts to make people tell us when they were trying to influence our votes, but the Legislature managed to require that anyway. That was back when using campaign disclosure to make it more difficult for special interests to buy legislators was conservative orthodoxy — before the libertarians and anarchists started asserting themselves.

But then we elected a libertarian governor, and Mark Sanford’s out-of-state fellow-travelers started flooding in, either ignoring our law or finding ways around it. Eventually they began melting one into another, this secession of anonymous carpetbaggers who back their dump trucks full of cash up to our elections to buy their vision of a lawless society with a government shrunk small enough to drown in a bathtub.

First came the Michigan-based “All Children Matter,“ which tried to disguise its anti-schools motives by attacking legislators’ refusal to sign a blood oath to a creepy Washington puppetmaster, swearing to never ever raise a tax so help me God.

When people caught on to where that group was from and what it was all about, the ironically named “South Carolinians for Responsible Government” took over and acknowledged its defund-the-schools agenda. Then, right in the middle of the 2006 primary campaign, the name “Conservatives in Action” suddenly replaced SCRG’s name on attack pieces — after the State Ethics Commission told SCRG to start obeying the state law that required it to report how it spent money trying to warp our votes. Eventually the courts started going crazy, decided our law was too broad and struck it down.

Next came Howie Rich, who used his network of limited liability corporations to bypass spending limits with his attack on universal public education, the lifeblood of our democracy.

And now there’s Americans for Prosperity, the flagship organization of the political network overseen by industrialist billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch. Rather than pretending to provide “choices” for students, AFP is all about shrinking government and taxes.

That’s a popular enough idea that you’d think it could afford to be honest, and to go after actual tax increases. Of course, you’d then wonder why it would target a state where the Legislature cuts taxes a little every year, and a lot lots of years. The group’s robocalls targeting senators who supported raising gas taxes while cutting income taxes left off the “cutting income taxes” part. They warned of a “72 percent” gas tax hike (12 cents per gallon) in a way that made it sound like a “72-cent gas tax hike.”

It was an open secret during the roads debate that Republican senators were terrified that voting for the gas-tax increase — even an increase that was offset by an income-tax cut — would bring the trucks full of AFP money into their districts to defeat them.

We’ll keep being plagued by these carpetbaggers until we take back our political system. That means insisting the Legislature pass that Republican orthodoxy law requiring them to tell us when they spend money to distort our elections. And it means refusing to let the libertarians and anarchists control our elections.

The way to do that, if you’re one of the 65 percent to 85 percent of S.C. voters who boycott the polls until November, is to vote in the June state Republican primary (no one is bothering to try to buy the Democrats). And vote for the Republicans who actually care about South Carolina instead of fulfilling the fantasies of their out-of-state sugar daddies.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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