The Right-Wing Dark Money Group That May Be Coming to Your State Next

South Carolina’s Freedom Caucus is one of eleven such groups in state legislatures across the country. Funded by right-wing dark money, they’ve shown an obsession with enforcing their own bizarre hang-ups over race and gender.

The exterior of the South Carolina state house is seen on January 29, 2023, in Columbia, South Carolina. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

I saw a truly asinine spectacle last week in the South Carolina House of Representatives.

A handful of lawmakers had proposed a bill (H. 3868) to designate the second Saturday of November as “Women in Hunting and Fishing Awareness Day.” This is the kind of frivolous nonsense that pads out the horrors of every legislative season — but we haven’t gotten to the asinine part yet.

Rep. R. J. May III, a Lexington County Republican and vice chair of the state’s hard-right “Freedom Caucus,” rose to propose an amendment. He looked a little nervous as he rose to speak, the way an honor roll kid might rise to sass his teacher.

“Thank you, Mr. Speaker,” May said. “Uh, simply, we are defining what a woman is. Uh, for the purpose of this section, ‘women’ means individuals whose sex at birth was female.”

Everyone could see what Rep. May was doing. He was making an impish jab at transgender people, just another small indignity in a national campaign to eradicate transgender people from public life.

House Republicans overwhelmingly went along with May’s gimmick, and a motion to table the amendment failed 24-86. So Women in Hunting and Fishing Awareness Day was placed in limbo pending further debate, and May’s caucus pulled off a cheap stunt at the expense of my transgender friends and neighbors in South Carolina.

When I say this was an asinine spectacle, I don’t mean that the parties involved were unintelligent. As a policy I assume that the conservatives running my state have a basic level of cunning, even when their strategy involves outwardly oafish stunts like this one. I mean the word in the original sense, that the people in question are prone to braying like asses.

“Democrats and RINOs then tried to table the amendment. . . ” the SC Freedom Caucus account crowed on Twitter afterward. “Evidently they aren’t sure what a woman is. . .”

Living in a state under single-party rule, I confess I sometimes get a thrill out of watching factions and rifts open up within the ruling party. When the factions attack one another over shades of difference in their cruelty, I savor the moment — but I also recognize that these shades of difference are significant, and they can be exploited.

So, in the spirit of knowing one’s enemy, here’s what I could find out about the South Carolina Freedom Caucus.

The South Carolina Freedom Caucus is the largest of eleven state-level caucuses like it, counting twenty members in the South Carolina House of Representatives.

It’s part of the State Freedom Caucus Network, which launched in December 2021 under the aegis of Tea Party granddaddy Jim DeMint’s Conservative Partnership Institute.

The members of this caucus are, from what I can tell, obsessed with enforcing their own hang-ups regarding race and gender. They’re a young-ish group with few legislative wins under their belt, but they make a lot of noise.

Legislative priorities for the caucus members this year include:

Censoring teachers and defunding public schools through punitive bans on “prohibited concepts,” such as privilege and gender identity (H. 3728)
Ensuring that the representatives of church-operated childcare centers are from “registered faith-based centers” (H. 3745)
Vehemently opposing the Clementa C. Pinckney Hate Crimes Act (H. 3014), which would finally provide penalties for hate crimes in South Carolina
Blocking a bill defining antisemitism (H. 3686) on the grounds that it might sneak anti-bias and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training into the state

Here’s a list of who they’re currently suing:

Lexington County School District 1, for the alleged inclusion of “critical race theory” and “liberal indoctrination” in a successful literacy curriculum from a company called EL (Expeditionary Learning). They are doing this after releasing a doctored sting video of a curriculum provider talking about “culturally relevant pedagogy,” which they see as a bad thing.
Charleston County School District (full disclosure, I have three kids attending school in this district), for the same reason.
The South Carolina House Ethics Committee, whose Republican members they say are “muzzling” them by refusing to recognize them as a legislative caucus. Freedom Caucus chair Rep. Adam Morgan said in a news conference about the lawsuit that his group wants the right to “raise money, hire staff, [and] openly endorse candidates.”

The SC Freedom Caucus has enough members to force roll-call votes, but not enough to take the steering wheel of the state’s Republican supermajority. They’ve ruffled the feathers of the more genteel leadership in their party, including House Speaker Murrell Smith, who has said he wants to “enforce respect and decorum” in the statehouse chambers.

“This is just about self-promotion for the sake of their own egos,” mainline Republican Rep. Micah Caskey groused to the Charleston City Paper recently.

I don’t want to overstate the size of the rift. Many of the politicians decrying the SC Freedom Caucus’s tactics fundamentally agree with them on policy. But in a state where Democrats can only call foul from the sidelines, it’s worth considering the power dynamics at play within the Republican Party.

The risk is that, like the Tea Party before it, the Freedom Caucus might succeed in dragging its host party further to the right. The risk is especially pronounced because the Freedom Caucus has a mountain of dark money behind it.

For that, we can thank former senator Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican. Since leaving the Senate and doing a stint leading the Heritage Foundation, DeMint has built an entire ecosystem of dark-money nonprofits under his Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), which reported $45.7 million in revenue on its IRS filing from 2021.

CPI is an umbrella organization whose other subsidiary groups include the American Accountability Foundation, America First Legal, Center for Renewing America, American Cornerstone Institute, American Moment, and the Election Integrity Network. In addition to its connection with the usual morass of Republican megadonors, it has at least one strong tie to Trumpworld.

Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, currently under investigation after being caught pressuring Georgia election officials to throw the 2020 election for Donald Trump, joined the leadership of CPI in January 2021. In December 2021, the day after the House January 6 Committee recommended Meadows be held in criminal contempt of Congress, Meadows flew to Atlanta to attend the launch gala for the State Freedom Caucus Network. This is clearly an important project for him, made all the more ominous by the prominence of the Tenth Amendment (you know, the “states’ rights” one) on the SFCN website.

The members of the various state freedom caucuses may give the appearance of terminally online clout chasers. Maybe they are, in part. But we have to take them seriously because they have an extreme agenda and a pile of cash to back it up.

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