COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — With less than four months until South Carolina voters pick their next governor, some leading Republican state lawmakers are suggesting that efforts by a group on their own side exemplify how the gubernatorial campaign has entered the "silly season."

The Republican Governors Association on Tuesday launched a website accusing Democratic gubernatorial nominee James Smith of "consistently and shamelessly" supporting tax hikes during his more than two decades in the state House. A web ad from the group called Smith a "liberal politician" who backs "Bernie Sanders-style big government."

In contrast, during the Democratic primary one of Smith's opponents accused him of being too conservative. Charleston consultant Phil Noble flayed Smith for having a positive rating from the National Rifle Association and blamed the longtime legislator for the reason "South Carolina has one of the most lax sets of gun laws in the country."

In a statement to AP, Smith called the RGA's attacks "tired, false, divisive drivel."

The website itself offers no details backing up the group's assertions. Upon request, the RGA provided The Associated Press with several media articles about Smith's stances, including a 2016 piece citing his support of raising the gas tax.

Jon Thompson, spokesman for the Republican Governors Association, later told AP that Smith "has voted to raise taxes multiple other times," pointing to the Democrat's 2002 support of increasing the state's tobacco tax, as well as his 2010 backing of raising sales tax on groceries. He also reiterated Smith's 2016 support for South Carolina's gas tax.

Smith was one of many lawmakers who backed raising the state's gas tax to provide reliable revenue to fix South Carolina's deteriorating roads and bridges. After weeks of contentious debate, legislative Republicans and Democrats alike voted overwhelmingly in 2017 to pass the increase, which Republican Gov. Henry McMaster pledged to veto.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers in both chambers then combined to defeat McMaster's veto by more than 80 percent. Given that tremendous support for the bill, information like the RGA's effort is nothing but politics intended to draw a contrast between the Democratic and Republican nominees — even if their parties have agreed on the issues — Republican Rep. Gary Clary told AP on Tuesday.

"All that does is establish a difference between James Smith and Henry McMaster," Clary said. "James Smith, along with a lot of Democrats and Republicans, supported the increase of the gas tax. And Gov. McMaster vetoed it. ... Everyone tries to seize on what they can in order to get an edge or a wedge."

Instead of raising the tax, McMaster proposed borrowing up to $1 billion for road repairs and also asked the federal government for $5 billion. House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, who called McMaster's quest for federal money a good idea but not a long-term solution, said the Republican Governors Association's attack isn't a surprise in an election year.

"The political season is also known as silly season," the Republican said Tuesday. "That goes with the territory unfortunately."

Gibbs Knotts, a political scientist at the College of Charleston, said Tuesday that the RGA's allegations are hard to swallow when compared with Smith's bipartisanship, particularly on issues like the gas tax.

"Other than this gas tax, I don't know that there's a real record of him supporting massive tax increases," Knotts said. "We're in such a hyper-partisan environment right now. I have to believe at some point that people are going to say, well, when people can compromise and work together, that's better."

To Simrill, the improvements and safety fixes already evident on the state's roads are evidence that the bill was the right one, regardless of party.

"Getting the job done was more important than partisan politics," he said.


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