A mysterious conservative super PAC trashing Lindsey Graham in South Carolina may be Democrats in disguise
- A mysterious new super PAC is bashing Sen. Lindsey Graham as a "disgrace" and boosting his third-party conservative opponent who dropped out of the race last month.
- But clues in the PACs spending patterns strongly suggest Democrats are actually behind the mischief in South Carolina, a state renowned for dirty tricks in elections.
- Liberty SC is what's called a pop-up super PAC, meaning it can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money but won't have to disclose where that cash is coming from until well after the election is decided.
- "Their goal is to divide conservatives so Jamie Harrison can win, and I will not stand for it," Bill Bledsoe, a Constitution Party candidate for the Senate who since left the 2020 race and backed Graham. He asked Democrats to "cease and desist."
- The secret spending has become an increasingly popular tactic as political parties seek to gain an edge in close contests, or boost the candidate from the opposite party in a primary who they think is more beatable in the general election.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
The mailers flooding inboxes and ads clogging Facebook feeds in South Carolina begged voters to "Defend The Constitution," and "Send a Message to Washington!"
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, the ads read, is a "disgrace," who "cozies up to liberals on guns," "voted to confirm Obama's pro-abortion judges," "supports tearing down Civil War Memorials," and wrote a bill to "give citizenship to illegals."
But the right-wing jargon blitzing the Palmetto State in the final days of the Senate race may not be coming from the right wing, at all. The million-dollar ad buy from a group purporting to be a conservative super PAC may actually be financed by supporters of the Democrat in the race, part of a broader misinformation campaign aimed at tamping down Graham's support in favor of his opponent, Jaime Harrison.
Liberty SC, the super PAC behind the ads, isn't asking voters to back Harrison, the former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman who has run a surprisingly close race in his bid to deny Graham a fourth Senate term. The group is actually asking voters to support President Donald Trump and punch their ballots for the Constitution Party candidate Bill Bledsoe — even though Bledsoe ended his campaign earlier this month and threw his support behind Graham.
Graham's campaign suspects the goal is to siphon off a few percentage points of the Republican senator's support and funnel it to Bledsoe, thereby creating a narrow lane for Harrison to snatch an upset victory in deep-red South Carolina, where polls show an unexpected nail-biter in a contest involving one of Trump's most fervent GOP defenders.
Clues in the group's campaign finance records indicate Democrats are indeed behind the ads. But because of a little-known campaign finance loophole, voters won't know for sure who's funding the effort until after the election. That's because Liberty SC, which plunged almost $1 million into the Senate race over the course of just three days last week, is what's known as a pop-up political action committee. That means it was formed so late in the election year, that it's in a disclosure dead zone; it won't have to reveal who has donated to the group until after the next Federal Election Commission reporting period, which ends in late November.
"One of the problems with the pop-up super PACs is that they're often not funded by the groups or entities that you would expect them to be," said Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that works to limit money in politics. "Certainly, conservative voters who like Trump might look at the message from the super PAC differently if they knew that it was funded by Democratic interests."
Meet the Mammen Group
Several emails to Liberty SC went unanswered. But the clearest sign tying this group to Democrats is who it paid to create and send the anti-Graham ads. Although pop-up PACs don't have to disclose their donors in the final stretch before an election, they do have to disclose when they spend money. And Liberty SC spent money on companies that federal records show have exclusively worked with Democrats.
Among those organizations is the Mammen Group, a Washington, DC, direct mail firm that appears to have been paid more than $400,000 by Liberty SC, according to FEC records. The payments were made for "mailings" opposing Graham. The group listed as the payee on Liberty SC's FEC files is "Public Service Associates," but the headquarters listed is the same Washington DC address that houses the Mammen Group. Public Service Associates is also a trade name the Mammen Group used between 2003 and 2005, according to DC business records.
The Mammen Group website boasts that, "We have a long track record of executing targeted communication programs that help Democrats win hotly contested races," citing work for high-profile candidates such as former presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, as well as left-leaning state and municipal groups. The website also notes that the firm works with super PACs.
"Progressive groups and super PACs play an increasingly vital role in electing Democrats to high office. Direct mail has been a critical tool for these groups to target their members and the electorate at large," according to the website.
The outfit has done negative work, as well: FEC records show that Mammen ran a mail operation on behalf of a PAC called the American Values Coalition during the 2018 election cycle bashing Texas GOP Rep. Pete Olsen, who was in a close race that he narrowly won. Olsen announced his retirement the next year. Mammen also displays fliers on its website attacking former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and ex-Rep. Ryan Costello, a Pennsylvania Republican.
The company's founder, Anil Mammen, said in an email to Insider that he doesn't want to run afoul of campaign finance laws that forbid super PACs from communicating with candidates.
"To prevent inadvertent collusion or sharing of information with federal candidates and their campaigns, we do not discuss our IE work until after the election is over," he said. Mammen declined to respond to follow-up questions.
'I am not authorized to talk about it'
Another clue suggesting Democrats are behind the anti-Graham attacks comes from A4 Media LLC, which Liberty SC paid nearly $170,000 for digital advertising, according to FEC records. The enterprise lists a Pittsburgh post office box as its business address and has run online ads for two Democratic candidates this year, Ellen Marks in Indiana and Eva Putzova in Arizona. Both women ran unsuccessfully in their party primaries.
Finally, the super PAC paid an ad placement service on Manhattan's Madison Ave. almost $400,000. Philip Cunningham, the founder and director of Political Communications Advertising, said his agency executes media buys for clients across the political spectrum but declined to get into specifics about his work in South Carolina.
"All I can tell you is that I am not authorized to talk about it," Cunningham said.
T.W. Arrighi, a spokesman for Graham's campaign, said he thinks Harrison or his backers are behind Liberty SC.
"Liberal Jaime Harrison knows the only way he can win is to mislead conservatives into voting for someone who has suspended his campaign and is now supporting Senator Graham," he said. "It's deeply dishonest, and South Carolina voters will reject Harrison's lies to millions of people."
Harrison's campaign spokesman, Guy King, did not respond to a request for comment. Lisa Pearson, a Columbia, South Carolina, woman who is listed as the point of contact for Liberty SC, also did not respond to an emailed request for comment. A request for comment sent through the group's Facebook page did not yield a reply.
Although campaign finance laws would forbid Harrison's campaign from directly managing or even communicating with Liberty SC, the super PAC's ads fit a tactic Harrison has openly deployed in recent weeks to drive a wedge between Graham and avowed conservative voters.
The Harrison campaign has financed ads declaring Bledsoe is "too conservative," and linking to a page funded by the state Democratic Party noting, "We all know Lindsey Graham's changed, but beware of Bill Bledsoe." Harrison's campaign has defended the tactics, noting they just want to give voters the full range of information about all of the candidates in the race.
An increasingly common campaign tactic
Another Democratic super PAC that has mostly been attacking Rep. Roger Marshall in his Kansas Senate run must have picked up on the cues too, because it began running ads in South Carolina on Tuesday telling voters Graham is a "25-year Washington insider who attacks Trump," while Bledsoe is, "Too conservative: Pro life, pro gun, pro Trump."
"Don't settle or sell out your beliefs. Send a message with your vote and stand up for what you believe in," the ad, paid for by the Duty and Country PAC, nudges voters.
That PAC received an October cash infusion from a nonprofit called Duty and Honor, which is reportedly aligned with Democratic leadership and has run ads in favor of Democrats in previous election years.
The tactic also fits one that's been deployed with increasing frequency in congressional races over the last several years. A Democratic-linked super PAC attempted to boost conservative candidate Kris Kobach over Marshall in Kansas' GOP senate primary earlier this year. In Kentucky, a pro-Amy McGrath super PAC has sent mailers supporting the Libertarian candidate in the Democrat's race against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican. In 2017, a mystery PAC spent $4.1 million in support of Democratic Sen. Doug Jones and against his opponent Roy Moore. It turned out to have been funded by some of the largest Democratic Super PACs, which was only revealed a day before the special election.
Democrats, meanwhile, are suspicious that Republicans have been backing rapper Kanye West's quixotic presidential bid as a ploy to pry Black and young voters away from Joe Biden's coalition. Several people who have helped West gather signatures and get on the ballot in key swing states have been found to have ties to GOP groups.
Brett Kappel, an election finance expert at the DC law firm Harmon Curran, said it's not unusual for these pop-up PACs to form right after the last filing deadline so they don't have to disclose their donors until after the race is decided. Often they'll have their funding lined up and ads already made, but hold off on the transactions themselves until just after filing a statement of organization with the FEC — all legal under outdated campaign finance laws, he said.
"You can wire the whole thing so that it's ready to go, and the day after you file your statement of organization with the FEC you could be cranking out things. and no one will know who funded those until a month after the election is over," he said.
South Carolina's dirty tricks reputation
Harrison is flush with cash, raising a record-breaking $57 million just in the last fundraising quarter. Cook Political Report rates the race as a toss up, and polls over the last month have shown either a tie or a slight lead for Graham in the conservative Southern state that is all but guaranteed to back Trump in the presidential race atop the ballot.
Ironically, the underhanded tactics may be among the forces driving conservative groups that have in the past been deeply skeptical of Graham to back him just days before the election.
Arrighi shared a letter signed by Bledsoe, the third party candidate, urging voters to back Graham and calling on any groups using his name or likeness to "cease and desist."
"Harrison, the South Carolina Democrat Party, and liberal groups from across the country are running misleading ads that encourage South Carolinians to support my suspended campaign," the letter read. "Their goal is to divide conservatives so Jaime Harrison can win, and I will not stand for it."
The same letter was read aloud at a Wednesday press conference in South Carolina held by Greenville Tea Party Chairman Pressley Stutts, who along with a handful of state conservative activists said he'd be backing Graham even as he and his conservative compatriots had problems with him in the past.
Graham, 65, has had a roller coaster political career. It includes a stint in the House as an impeachment manager seeking to remove President Bill Clinton from office, unsuccessful attempts during the Obama administration to reach agreements with Democrats on climate change and immigration, a failed bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 and more recently a shift to support Trump on a range of issues over the last four years.
South Carolina also has a long history with political funny business. Then-Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain was met with nasty rumors during his 2000 presidential run there, including a push poll that called voters to ask, "Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain … if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?"
During the 2008 presidential contest, South Carolina voters received phony Christmas cards by mail purporting to be from candidate Mitt Romney, but which also contained controversial quotes from the Book of Mormon.
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