COLUMBIA - South Carolina Republicans are preparing to launch a social media campaign based on their Democratic opponent's sponsorship and support of a bill that would have helped people seeking to expunge nonviolent crimes from their records.

However, Sen. Vincent Sheheen wasn't that bill's sponsor, and he voted the same way everybody else in the Senate and the House did - in favor of the bill.

Republican Party Chairman Matt Moore said Wednesday that Sheheen was "the lead Senate sponsor on a bill that would have given convicted criminals the right to have their records cleaned and expunged." Moore said that the party plans to make it a campaign issue.

"We'll be, in the next couple of weeks, of course, highlighting these issues," Moore said. "We think it's just another way Vincent Sheheen has continually put South Carolina criminals above South Carolina citizens."

But the bill's actual sponsor was Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, the House minority leader. It was meant to provide a path for those convicted of low-level felonies, such as shoplifting, receiving stolen goods, property damage and non-trafficking drug charges. The bill would have allowed for only ex-cons who had received a pardon from the state pardon and parole board to apply for their records to be cleared.

The bill passed both chambers easily with bipartisan support - 90-0 in the House and 43-0 in the Senate - during the 2012 legislative session. Gov. Nikki Haley later vetoed it.

"It doesn't make any sense," said Rutherford of Moore's claims. "Republicans obviously can't read or when they read, they don't read for understanding."

Moore later said that the party was incorrect in its news release and news conference when they said Sheheen sponsored the bills, though Sheheen was the chairman of the subcommittee that heard the bill in the Senate.

The decision to launch such a campaign signals that the Republican Party is taking Sheheen seriously as a challenger, said Kendra Stewart, a political science professor at the College of Charleston. She added the move is an effort to minimize any impact Sheheen could have on the gubernatorial race.

"The fact that the Republicans are coming out with this offense, with this issue, signals their concern that this race could be competitive as well," Stewart said. "It's not a surprise that they would resort to this tactic."

In 2012, Sheheen heard from law enforcement, crime victims and prosecutors to help his subcommittee make modifications to the bill. He directed an effort to better define what nonviolent crimes could be expunged. The Senate panel also specified that someone's record must be clear for at least 10 years - and possibly 15 to 20 years - to qualify.

South Carolina Democratic Party Spokeswoman Kristin Sosanie said the Republican Party is seeking to divert attention away from the "tragic failures" of the Department of Social Services.

"GOP must really be getting desperate if they have to stoop to attacking their own members for being soft on crime just to try and drum up some clips they can use in the next disgraceful RGA ad against Sheheen," said Sosanie in a written statement. The Republican Governor's Association has paid for television ads blasting Sheheen, a Camden lawyer, for representing clients accused of domestic violence.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.