COLUMBIA — Even before he won a special election to the state Senate in November, Democrat Dick Harpootlian landed a potentially game-changing blow to the way Statehouse campaigns are funded in South Carolina.
Inundated with TV ads funded by the state Senate GOP caucus — a group that includes all Republican incumbents — Harpootlian filed a lawsuit claiming that the ads amounted to an excessive campaign contribution on behalf of his opponent, Columbia attorney Benjamin Dunn.
A district court ruled in favor of his request to temporarily halt the ads while the broader lawsuit plays out, and the state Supreme Court declined to immediately overturn that preliminary injunction.
If Harpootlian ends up winning the full case, legislators and operatives believe it could have a dramatic impact on the way Statehouse campaigns are financed moving forward, curbing the influence in elections from powerful party groups.
To Harpootlian, a former state Democratic Party chairman from Columbia, that's exactly the point.
"The reason why I ran was not to just win an election or to be a senator," Harpootlian said. "It's about hopefully bringing about some fundamental change in how the folks in the Statehouse view their jobs. I found this particular practice to be not only repugnant but illegal."
The practice he's referring to is House and Senate party caucuses raising large amounts of cash from major corporations that have business before the Legislature — like AT&T or S.C. Electric & Gas — and then using it to fund ad campaigns on behalf of their candidates.
Harpootlian's attorneys, led by Joe McCulloch, argue that a close reading of the state's ethics laws actually shows that the caucuses should be restricted from spending more than $5,000 for each candidate — either through a direct donation to the candidate or in ads supporting them.
"The point of this lawsuit was to stop the whole concept of unlimited spending by sources that, according to the Republican caucus, didn't have to play by the aggregate cap amounts, so you had this free-spending ability that in our opinion was a circumvention of the law," McCulloch said.
A final verdict is likely months away. But if caucus support is ultimately restrained, candidates in future election cycles could be forced to raise more money on their own to make up for it.
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, who is fighting against the lawsuit in court, called it a "significant change in the law" and argued it would discourage candidates from running if they are not independently wealthy or have the ability to raise large sums of money.
The change could also increase reliance on other outside groups, who could raise the same money that was previously going to the caucuses and spend it on their own ads supporting candidates in competitive races.
"Money will figure out a way to be spent, but it's going to happen in a true dark money fashion," said Massey, R-Edgefield. "I think it could be much more damaging than if you had a very strict system where everything had to be disclosed."
Which political party benefits more could be up for debate.
On the one hand, the Republican caucuses have more money, so limiting their spending could handicap their financial advantage. On the other hand, Republican incumbents hold more power in the Legislature than Democrats due to their majority control, which could make it easier for them to raise funds on an individual basis.
"It may not be welcome news in any corner," McCulloch said, "except for the people that care about the purity of the electoral process, which at this point is not very virginal anymore because of this infusion of money."
At least one caucus leader, House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, said he supports the effort. The House GOP caucus already limits their total spending on behalf of specific candidates to no more than $5,000, according to House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill.
"A caucus should be able to influence elections, but they should not be able to buy them," said Rutherford, D-Columbia.
Also unclear is whether the new interpretation of the law could wind up roping in the state and county parties too, similarly limiting them to spending no more than $5,000 on a candidate's behalf. For now, McCulloch said they are specifically targeting the caucuses.
Some GOP critics called out Harpootlian for what they viewed as hypocrisy: When he chaired the S.C. Democratic Party, he spent plenty of money to support candidates.
He contends that's different because the state party chairman does not directly oversee legislation like a caucus chairman does — and even so, he was following the law as it was understood at the time.
The lawsuit has already prompted some legislators from both parties to begin discussing potentially changing the law to reallow unlimited caucus spending.
But if they do, Harpootlian — a famously combative political figure — stands ready with a filibuster threat.
"If they want that fight, I'll have that fight," he said.