An already hostile state Senate race took another surprise turn this week when automated phone calls went out from a fictitious gay rights organization claiming to support Democratic candidate Mandy Powers Norrell.
The robocalls came from a group purporting to be the Alliance for the Advancement of Gays and Lesbians. A caller introduces herself as "Allison" and praises Norrell for supporting homosexual unions and abortion rights.
There is no evidence that such an organization actually exists. On Wednesday, Norrell and Republican opponent Mick Mulvaney condemned the calls and demanded they be stopped.
"I'm having to combat this one on one, and I don't know how many thousands of people this went out to," said Norrell, an attorney from Lancaster. "It's taking me away from what I need to be doing, which is meeting voters and knocking on doors. I keep having to stop to address dirty political tactics."
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Mulvaney said he has "no clue" who produced the calls.
"I'm getting labeled with it, and it's not fair," Mulvaney said. "I didn't do this. This is a reprehensible tactic, and I want to make clear I had nothing to do with it."
Norrell says the message grossly misrepresents her positions. She opposes same-sex marriage and believes abortion should be allowed only in cases of rape or incest, or when the health of the mother is in danger.
Norrell also believes clinics should be required to notify parents before performing abortions on minors.
The two candidates are vying to replace the retiring Greg Gregory in District 16, which represents Lancaster County and most of Fort Mill. Told of the calls on Wednesday, Gregory said he regrets the hostility coming from both sides.
"This is the most hotly contested race we've had in a number of years, maybe ever," he said. "I'm glad it's them and not me. To me, holding political office is not important enough to do something that you're going to regret and that's going to be damaging to your reputation."
Both candidates are distributing mailers and airing TV commercials in the district, some paid for by their respective state parties.
Mulvaney, a developer from Indian Land, faces a tougher-than-expected challenge in what many consider a down year for Republicans. Presidential nominee Barack Obama has stirred excitement among new and nontraditional voters, creating the potential for higher turnout among Democratic supporters.
That potential might explain the thinking behind this week's automated calls, said Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University.
"They wouldn't do this unless they thought he was actually at risk of losing," Huffmon said. "It's an indication of how close this shadow group views the election to be. As the races get tighter, this is to be expected."
News of the calls spread quickly across the blogosphere Wednesday, igniting exchanges between S.C. political factions while also reaching gay rights activists elsewhere in the country.
"Being a gay person myself, I think it's disgusting that we continue to be the boogeyman," Frank Conway of Broadway Cares, an HIV/AIDS nonprofit agency in New York, told The Herald on Wednesday. "When I hear people talking about the 'homosexual agenda,' it's just ridiculous, the idea that there's a group of people sitting around saying, 'Let's do this.'"
The most likely impact will be to further energize partisans who already favored one candidate, said state Rep. Carl Gullick, a veteran York County political watcher.
"It just deepens the existing feelings that people have," said Gullick, a Republican.
"When you're less than a week out, just how many undecided voters are out there?"
To read more about local races, visit heraldonline.com/election2008.