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Republican infighting trickles down into misleading mailers. Do voters notice?

In World
June 08, 2024

“Liberal Republicans.” “TOO extreme.” “ESTABLISHMENT PUPPETS.”

Leading up to the June 11 South Carolina primaries, potential voters may have been reading phrases like those plastered across campaign mailers, fliers, social media and TV ads. The ads are primarily targeted at Republicans, but represent a larger battle trickling out of the state house and now into voter’s hands.

A faction of South Carolina’s Republican party has become increasingly active over the past three years, as hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus members and Republican House caucus members clash over the way legislating should be done and the state’s priorities. The Freedom Caucus claims the South Carolina Republican party is the most liberal Republican party in the U.S., while those not in the Freedom Caucus accuse the group of antics and not serious legislating.

The Freedom Caucus, a group of about 17 lawmakers, has shown that obstruction can be an unexpected source of power, while gaining influence that a number of Republican leaders are reluctant to acknowledge. The friction will play out at the ballot box, where more than 30 seats feature candidates aligned with each group.

This fraction plays a major role in campaigning, politicos say, especially for the primaries. The arguments on the House floor don’t always reach the eyes and ears of everyday South Carolinians, but campaign materials do.

Here’s how some of the battle between the two factions looks like to voters.

Anti-Freedom Caucus messaging

RJ May, R-Lexington, vice chair of the Freedom Caucus, said he counted at least 19 messages against him among the numerous campaign fliers sent out targeting his group over the past few months.

One flier in May’s district claimed he proposed a bill that defined an unborn child as a person at any stage of development. The bill said an “unborn child who is a victim of homicide” is afforded equal protection under the homicide laws of the state.

“Instead of protecting life, radical RJ MAY proposed a bill to sentence women — our daughters and granddaughters — to death who have abortions. RJ MAY is too extreme!” the flier from the Palmetto Truth Project read.

A note at the bottom of the flier read “*Yes, even victims of rape and incest! Fortunately common sense Republicans said no to RJ May.”

May didn’t propose the bill. According to state house records, May’s name was never on the bill. Multiple members of the Freedom Caucus, however, did sign onto the bill.

One mailer with state Rep. Josiah Magnuson’s face on it and “defund the police” in the background read “But radical JOSIAH MAGNUSON said NO to … Raising pay for law enforcement officers, Raising pay for First Responders, Funding a School Resource Officer in every school.”

The flier was referencing Magnuson’s June 2023 vote on the budget. That budget included raising first responder pay and SROs in schools. Magnuson was one of 14 House members to vote no. However, Magnuson and Freedom Caucus members say that budget did not address what the state needs.

Magnuson wrote, via text message, that he fought for more funding for law enforcement, and just because he voted no for the budget didn’t mean he was against some initiatives in it.

“BUT RADICAL REP. JOSIAH MAGNUSON… Voted to enable convicted criminals to carry firearms, Blocked free firearms training provided by SLED and CWP instructors, Betrayed the NRA by fighting them during the bill’s passage to only try and fool you by touting his own NRA credentials,” said a flier sent out about Magnuson from the Palmetto Truth Project.

Magnuson, however, did vote for an amendment proposed by May and Rep. Thomas Beach, R-Anderson, which would have deleted a section of the constitutional carry bill making rules about convicted felons being able to carry.

Anti-Republican messaging

In late April, a few Republican lawmakers tweeted out their dismay at a text message potential voters across the state had received from “Julia.” In the text, Julia from American Action Fund, where different Republicans not in the Freedom Caucus were listed with a message that read “voted for House Bill 4927 to create an Anthony Fauci-style Health Czar in South Carolina.”

The text message was about the vote on the Department of Health and Environmental Control restructuring bill, that would consolidate several state agencies with the new Division of Public Health. Rep. Jay West, R-Anderson, did vote in favor of the bill, but he and other Republicans did not consider it to be a “Fauci-style Health Czar,” bill, rather a more efficient way for government to run.

“Instead of eliminating burdensome health regulations Rep. [Jay] West voted to consolidate and give health powers to an unelected Anthony Fauci-style bureaucrat,” the text message goes on to say. It then lists a number to call West and “demand he reverse course and stand against medical tyranny.”

While this was during session, Republicans such as state Rep. Neal Collins, who was mentioned in one of the texts from Julia at American Action Fund, took to social media platform X to share that it was his sixth contested primary, and “Julia thinks voters will be influenced by poorly photo shopped picture of us in front of things “she” thinks scares you..” he tweeted.

Collins is facing Brandy Tarleton, who politicos have said is a Freedom Caucus-aligned candidate.

“Does Rep. Neal Collins know what a woman is? Rep Collins voted against properly defining genders into south carolina law,” a mailer sent out about Collins read. On the back, a photo of a drag queen has the message “Demand Rep. Collins Stop Caving to the Trans Agenda ” and lists his phone number. It was sent out by American Action Fund.

The mailer references the women’s hunting and fishing bill, which was widely supported in the House and Senate until May proposed an amendment to define what a woman was. Many Republicans saw it as part of the Freedom Caucus’ antics, and voted the amendment down.

Candidates attack each other; but third party groups do more

Walt Whetsell, President of Starboard Communications, the communications strategy firm for the House GOP Caucus, according to media reports, said the House GOP has taken a “very aggressive” approach back to protecting their caucus members and the misinformation that has been taken against members.

“That has manifested itself into a lot of money being spent on both sides of this,” Whetsell told The State.

Freedom Caucus candidates spent more than $562,000 on their campaigns through May 22, according to state ethics commission reports. But candidates aligned with the GOP caucus spent more than $1 million through May 22.

Negative campaigning against House GOP members has been largely by mail, text and digital strategies, Whetsell said.

“That’s the tactical answer,” Whetsell said. “The strategic answer is utilizing some of the gotcha votes and gotcha amendments over the last couple of years that were intended at the time to set up the campaign.”

SC political strategist and consultant, Chris Slick, wrote via Twitter on June 2, “Mail is still king in a SC legislative race, not digital and certainly not TV—change my mind.”

A majority of the fliers on both sides, candidates and politicos say, come from “dark money groups.”

You won’t find the term “dark money group” in any statute or law. It’s a common term for describing Independent Expenditure Committees.

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled campaign spending is protected free speech and determined the monetary expenditures in a political race to be speech. Because the groups are not candidates, they aren’t required to disclose who gives them money and what they spend it on.

South Carolina’s law requiring committees to report that was struck down. That makes it the “wild wild west” of campaigning, politicos say, where anybody can be a “committee.”

These committees use campaign mailers, especially. A number of groups have been more public about who they are, including Palmetto Gun rights and Americans for Prosperity South Carolina. There are a few notable groups from outside South Carolina, including the American Action Fund from Texas and Faith and Freedom Coalition from Georgia (with a South Carolina branch), which have gone after House Republicans. Groups like the Palmetto Truth Project have gone after Freedom Caucus members.

While it’s largely unclear who runs these groups, some have issued apologies when they misrepresent the truth.

The Palmetto Truth Project issued an apology via Twitter that stated “It has been a top priority of this organization to maintain 100% accuracy in all our communications to voters…unlike the @SCFreedomCaucus does. It has come to our attention that @FactCheck_SC has identified 3 instances where we have indeed miscommunicated. In efforts to be transparent, we would like to express an apology to @scfreedomcaucus members, @RJMayIII, @JosiahMagnuson and to all the Chris Terribiles in the world (Jackie Terribile: @TSTStylist ).

The post listed three instances where they made false statements, one of which referenced the flier that said May supported the prenatal equal protection act.

Do mailers really make a difference? It depends

Karyn Amira, a political science professor at the College of Charleston, said while libel and slander laws governingwhat can and can not be said it’s very hard to prove intent and have a very high standard to meet in court, which allows for a lot of leeway about what people can say about other people, politicians especially.

“There is a line that can be crossed when it comes to defamation of character, but that is really difficult to accomplish,” Amira said. “So most people don’t even try. There’s a lot of leeway for basically twisting the truth being misleading, saying something biased.”

Amira said you would need to prove that someone said something demonstrably false about you and they knew it was false.

“That’s where this becomes difficult. A lot of people misspeak even if they write it on a flier, they might misspeak because they believed that something was true when it wasn’t. You can’t say something like ‘my opponent ate a baby’ knowing that that was false.”

Ultimately, the voter will need to be able to sift through that information and determine what is right, Amira said.

Amira said during primary elections, people are actually more persuadable than general elections.

“If you think about a general election, usually it’s a Democrat versus Republican and people sort of already know which way they’re going to vote, and there’s no information from a flier or you know, a radio ad that could move them,” Amira said.

In a primary, you can’t necessarily rely on your partisanship to make a decision, Amira said.

However, for voters to actually be affected, they have to read the mailer and have the motivation to determine its truth, she added. Even with this, most people will not remember what they saw.

“The effects are very short-lived, usually ranging from somewhere between an hour to two days maximum,” Amira said. ”They are minimal, but they can move people at the margins who are not already decided. And usually that would take place right at this time period.”

Is it effective? One former senator thinks so

Former state Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens was voted out of the state house in 2016 after a wave of negative campaigning came the last week before elections. While there were other factors, he said the “dark money” spent took a huge toll on his campaign.

“There’s no question that the amount of dark money that was spent prior to my election was very detrimental to my prospects,” Martin said. There were a lot of issues that were cut in, that you didn’t have to do much to exploit them, get people all riled up.”

Martin said while voters may have been ready to get rid of him, he does believe the messaging against him played a large role in him not being elected.

Fliers, TV ads, calls, text messages and more were sent out against Martin, and he said many of the statements were misleading or not true. They directly attacked his record on guns and domestic violence prevention.

“You don’t know it’s coming till it’s too late. There was quite a bit of money spent, and by whom, we don’t know.”

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