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Dick Harpootlian Defeats GOP Caucus In Court

What does his victory mean for future elections in South Carolina?

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Columbia, South Carolina attorney Dick Harpootlian has vowed to address the issue of money in politics in the event he is elected to the S.C. Senate next month.

Turns out we didn’t have to wait that long for him to make good on that campaign promise …

Harpootlian – a brash, wealthy lawyer who has previously served as solicitor, county council member and two-time chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party (SCDP) – scored a huge legal victory late Friday when S.C. circuit court judge Casey Manning ruled that a Republican caucus organization must stop spending money attacking him (and propping up his opponent).

Manning’s ruling enjoined the S.C. Senate Republican caucus – led by majority leader Shane Massey – from making any additional expenditures aimed at shoring up the candidacy of Columbia, S.C. attorney Benjamin Dunn ahead of his November 6 special election against Harpootlian.

Manning’s ruling hinges on a state law limiting caucus organizations to $5,000 in expenditures on Dunn’s behalf during an election cycle.  Massey countered that a decades-old ethics ruling permits caucuses to spend unlimited funds on “educational” advertisements in the forty-five days leading up to an election.

Harpootlian has insisted that the law, not an advisory opinion, should be binding.  The GOP has countered that any prohibitions against its ads are unconstitutional.

The caucus began running ads savaging Harpootlian on October 2.  Shortly thereafter, the group began running ads touting Dunn for the seat.

So far, the caucus has spent $200,000 on the race but Massey testified under oath earlier this week that it would pump as much as $1 million into the election – the only State Senate race on the ballot in 2018.

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Massey’s decision to invest so heavily in this election has upset many of his Republican colleagues.  Instead of spending six figures on a race Democrats are expected to win, they would have preferred to see him build the caucus’ war chest in advance of the 2020 election cycle – in which every seat in the GOP-controlled Senate is up for grabs.  Not only that, many Republicans view Harpootlian as a disruptive influence for State House Democrats.

That dynamic was actually on display in the aftermath of the court decision.

Veteran Democratic operative Phil Bailey noted disapprovingly that Manning’s “unpopular” ruling in the Harpootlian case “freezes Senate Democrats and House Democrats spending too.”

Several other Democratic leaders privately groused to us that Harpootlian was “proving once again he is not a team player” by challenging the caucus funding loophole.

Harpootlian was characteristically unapologetic.

“I’m in this race to clean up the corruption in the State House,” he said.

Dunn and Harpootlian are vying for S.C. Senate District 20 (map) – a heavily gerrymandered seat 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.

The winner of the November 6 special election will serve out the remainder of Courson’s unexpired term and then stand for reelection in 2020 along with the rest of the Senate.

(Click to view)

(Via Travis Bell Photography)

Massey told The (Columbia, S.C.) State newspaper the caucus would appeal Manning’s ruling.  He also complained that the left-leaning judge deliberately delayed his decision until late Friday as an act of “bad faith” – forcing the caucus to wait until Monday to file its appeal.

While Massey’s group has been unable to run ads against Harpootlian over the past week as it awaited Manning’s ruling, the Democrat has been emptying his campaign war chest – including a sizable buy devoted to exposing the caucus donors who are subsidizing Dunn’s candidacy.

Harpootlian’s ad specifically blasted the caucus for taking tens of thousands of dollars from companies like SCANA, one of the utilities at the heart of the Palmetto State’s #NukeGate debacle.

This spectacularly failed government intervention in the nuclear power industry has cost ratepayers in the Midlands region of the state hundreds of millions of dollars in higher energy bills.

“Remember the money you paid to (SCANA) to fund their failed nuclear power plant?” the ad’s narrator asks.  “Now that money is bankrolling TV ads for Benjamin Dunn’s campaign.”

Well, not anymore …

Stay tuned.  The caucus is likely to appeal this ruling first thing Monday morning in the hopes of getting back on the air against Harpootlian sooner rather than later.

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