South Carolina legislative special interest caucuses can formally campaign, a federal judge ruled Tuesday in a victory for a hardline conservative group of state representatives that want to push the Republican-controlled Legislature further to the right.
The order allows the South Carolina Freedom Caucus to fundraise and distribute election materials just like the House Republican, Democratic, Black and Women’s Caucuses already do. The fledgling conservative faction had argued that a state ethics law limiting those abilities only to caucuses organized by political party, race, ethnicity or gender violated its freedom of speech.
“By prohibiting special interest caucuses from engaging in election-related speech, making expenditures for that speech, and soliciting contributions for that speech, South Carolina’s law operated as ‘a ban on speech,’” Judge Cameron McGowan Currie wrote.
Ultraconservative elected officials in at least 11 statehouses have organized under the State Freedom Caucus Network banner in an attempt to gain influence by leveraging divisive social issues.
Those efforts are expected to get a boost in South Carolina after the decision. The South Carolina Freedom Caucus had said the statute favored the ruling parties and arbitrarily disempowered others. Special interest caucuses had previously only been able to solicit money for the cost of mail and conference attendance.
With the Tuesday ruling, state Rep. RJ May, the vice chairman of the South Carolina Freedom Caucus, said “the establishment’s armor is cracking.”
“The career politicians in Columbia have created a system of the powerful, for the powerful, and by the powerful that benefits themselves and their cronies,” May said in a statement.
The judge also struck a prohibition on lobbyist contributions to legislative special interest caucuses. Gone is another requirement that the Clerk’s Office maintain records for at least four years with identifying information about donors and the amounts donated.
Republican State Rep. Micah Caskey, named in the lawsuit as a member of the committee that enforces those rules, said the judge “blast(ed) a hole in our state ethics laws.”
Because any two legislators can form their own special interest caucus, Caskey fears the ruling will open the door for state lawmakers to raise undisclosed funds in coordination with their campaigns.
“The dark money is going to come pouring into our state because these guys and the judge think it’s a good idea for any legislator to sidestep our campaign finance laws by creating a ‘special interest caucus,’” Caskey told The Associated Press in a text.
The lawsuit had backing from America First Legal, a legal group founded by Stephen Miller and other previous White House advisers to former President Donald Trump.
Republished with permission from The Associated Press.