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SC Senate Race: Legal Drama

Can GOP caucus bankroll S.C. Senate candidate?

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South Carolina’s Senate Republican Caucus has suspended its campaign spending in a competitive special election as it awaits a judge’s ruling on whether the advertisements it is running constitute prohibited campaign contributions.

The caucus – led by Senate majority leader Shane Massey – has been desperately trying to shore up the candidacy of Columbia, S.C. attorney Benjamin Dunn ahead of the November 6 election.  Beginning on October 2, the caucus began running ads savaging Dunn’s influential, well-funded rival for the seat – former solicitor/ county councilman and two-time S.C. Democratic Party (SCDP) chairman Dick Harpootlian.

This week, Harpootlian took the caucus to court – arguing its ads against him constituted campaign contributions and, as such, were in excess of a $5,000 limit on the financial support the caucus is allowed to provide any one candidate.  Massey countered that a decades-old Senate ethics committee opinion gives his group the right to exceed those limits in the weeks leading up to an election.

The caucus was in the middle of a $100,000 ad campaign when Harpootlian took them to court.

Who decides the case?  And when will we know the outcome?

According to reporter Maayan Schechter of The (Columbia, S.C.) State newspaper, the case has been taken under advisement by S.C. circuit court judge Casey Manning.

“Manning is expected to rule by week’s end,” Schechter reported.

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Dunn and Harpootlian are vying for S.C. Senate District 20 (map) – a heavily gerrymandered seat that was vacated earlier this year by former state senator John Courson.   A fiscally liberal Republican, Courson pleaded guilty in June to a misconduct in office charge related to #ProbeGate – a lengthy investigation into corruption in state government that has brought down multiple GOP officeholders.

Courson’s resignation after more than three decades in office triggered a November 6 special election – one which has already seen the leading GOP candidate bow out rather than take on Harpootlian.  Also, the candidate regarded as the GOP’s second-best prospect for this seat – insurance agent Bill Turbeville – wound up finishing last in a four-way Republican primary election on August 14.

As we have previously reported, many GOP senators are not wild about Massey getting involved in this race in the first place – and would probably be happy to see Manning rule against the caucus.

GOP senators – all of whom are facing reelection in 2020 – have told us they don’t want the caucus to waste money on a district that many of them believe is un-winnable.  As we have noted before, this district nearly went for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, and if there is anything resembling a blue wave in November then Harpootlian is a virtual lock to win the seat.  Also, his advantage should be further bolstered given that former S.C. House minority leader James Smith – whose House district lies in the middle of this Senate district – is running at the top of the Democratic statewide ticket.

Democrats in this district turned out en masse for Smith and his running mate, state representative Mandy Powers Norrell, during the June primary.

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