Startup political group's goals concern some state lawmakers

COLUMBIA -- A group with close ties to Gov. Mark Sanford kicks off its fundraising efforts for next year's General Assembly elections, hosting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at three events across the state today.

Letters to potential supporters of the group, Reform SC, have asked for donations of $3,500.

The big question is: How will Reform SC spend the money?

Sanford and Reform SC leaders say they are not targeting specific lawmakers and instead will focus on building a network of like-minded voters. The group, said director Chad Walldorf, plans a multimedia advertising campaign highlighting where Sanford stands and where lawmakers have disagreed with him.

Legislators worry the group could target individuals or paint all lawmakers with a broad brush.

"We're a startup group," said Walldorf, who formerly worked on Sanford's staff. "We'll try to figure out our strategy as we go."

In opinion columns that have appeared in S.C. newspapers, Sanford said the group would not target individual lawmakers. A rumored hit list, Sanford said, was an "urban legend."

But Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, worried that Reform SC might ignore former president Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.

"A lot of Republicans I've talked to are wary," McConnell said. "If they try to advance their vision of conservative philosophy, I don't know if anybody has an objection."

Another issue is who is funding the group.

Others, such as South Carolinians for Responsible Government, have drawn criticism for not releasing who has given money to the group. Reform SC has reported and will continue to report its donors, Walldorf said, and it also voluntarily has placed a $3,500 limit -- the most an individual can give to a candidate -- on its donors.

Rep. Keith Kelly, R-Spartanburg, who has been criticized by the South Carolina Club For Growth and others for past votes, said lawmakers are responsible for their constituents and not interest groups.

"That group doesn't speak for Spartanburg County," Kelly said of special interests in general. "I love it that they cause debate, but let's not go so far that it becomes divisive. That's what's happened in Washington."

House Majority Leader Jim Merrill, who helps the Republican Caucus members with their re-election efforts, said Reform SC's advertising efforts could misrepresent the views of some lawmakers.

"It seems everybody is being painted with the same brush," Merrill, R-Berkeley, said. "It kind of is unfair to them.

"If there are issues with specific people, they should go ahead and name them."

But Walldorf said Reform SC does not plan to do that. The group paid for radio ads this spring criticizing legislative spending, especially the Senate for including $950,000 for a green bean museum in Lake City.

"We think it had an impact," Walldorf said of the museum, which was cut from the budget.