Why Jon Ossoff's huge fundraising haul is an advantage and a liability

The money started flowing to Democrat Jon Ossoff even before he got in the race to represent a suburban Atlanta district in Congress, with some $250,000 in financial commitments lined up the day he announced his candidacy. And then it never stopped.

There was a wave of more than $1 million raised for his campaign through the liberal Daily Kos website, and millions of dollars more were collected in small-dollar contributions from frustrated Democrats and bigger donations from high-profile celebrities and politicians.

All told, the 30-year-old — virtually unknown before entering the race in January — has raised $8.3 million, setting what could be a record fundraising quarter in a U.S. House campaign. And then the other side of the story: Only about $1 in every $20 he collected was from Georgia.

It is at once a tremendous strength and a damaging liability for a candidate who has fast become a face of the resistance to President Donald Trump.

Awash in cash, Ossoff has mounted a relentless ad blitz on TV, radio and the internet to flip the district, which spans from east Cobb County to north DeKalb County. Glossy mailers sent by his campaign and its allies target not only reliably Democratic voters for the April 18 election but also some Republicans. Squads of door-knockers, many volunteers but some paid, roam leafy subdivisions searching for Ossoff supporters in places such as Dunwoody, Marietta and Milton.

But the tidal wave of donations may also embolden Republicans already eager to paint him as a globetrotting liberal. Donations from U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and a cast of Hollywood names seem certain to fuel more attacks. National GOP groups are already ratcheting up their spending. And his critics are using the out-of-district donations to remind voters that Ossoff, too, lives outside its environs.

A chance to ‘make gains’

The final financial figures for the crowded 18-candidate race trickled out early Friday and showed the full extent of Ossoff’s fundraising dominance.

The former congressional aide has raised more than five times as much money as all the other contenders in the 18-candidate field combined. And he has about twice as much money remaining in his campaign coffers for the final weeks of the race than all his opponents have together.

He’s managed this fundraising haul by appealing to Democrats in blue states appalled by Trump’s victory and searching for an outlet. Many want to embarrass the new president, and a Democratic victory in a district long held by Trump’s new health secretary, Tom Price, would certainly qualify as a major upset.

“I know how important it is for Democrats to make some gains in the House,” said Beth Weber, a Democrat from West Orange, N.J., who gave to Ossoff’s campaign. She added that a push from Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who has endorsed Ossoff, didn’t hurt either.

“When he asks me to donate to a candidate,” she said, “I do.”

Ossoff’s been able to exploit not only distrust with Trump but also a muddled and feuding Republican field. There are 11 candidates in the race, all vying for what could be one spot in a June 20 runoff against Ossoff — if he doesn’t win the race outright.

The race has exposed stark divides between the Republicans over health care, tax overhauls and foreign policy. Some are running as Trump loyalists; others hardly utter the president’s name. Most fall somewhere in between. And many criticize each other as much, or more, than they do Ossoff. All are fighting for the same chunk of the GOP electorate — and the same sliver of donors.

That helps explain why Republicans fail to keep pace with Ossoff. The top GOP fundraiser in the race, former state Sen. Judson Hill, raised about $473,000 after jumping in the race shortly after Price’s nomination. Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state and the highest-profile name in the race, raised about $463,000.

Other Republicans dipped deep into their wallets. Former state Sen. Dan Moody loaned his campaign about $1.9 million on top of the $110,000 he raised. Bob Gray sweetened his $210,000 fundraising haul with a $50,000 loan. Two other GOP candidates — businessmen David Abroms and Kurt Wilson — wrote checks of at least $200,000 to their campaigns.

Airwave supremacy

Ossoff’s fundraising dominance has attracted more attention to what is already the most competitive congressional election — and among the first — since Trump’s November victory. Democrats circled the race months ago, hoping that Trump’s struggles in the district — he carried it by about 1 point — could help them flip it.

But Ossoff’s airwave supremacy has exacted a tremendous price. He’s already spent about $6 million on his campaign since he announced his bid, amounting to more than $72,000 a day. And a scattering of public polls still show him hovering at 40 percent — well short of the majority needed to avoid a June 20 runoff against what could be a unifying GOP candidate.

Still, Republicans are increasingly worried about the threat that Ossoff could win the contest outright. The White House is said to have taken notice of his fundraising skill, and Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said the president will help if needed. Prominent conservative groups are ratcheting up their spending.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a political action committee with ties to U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, said Friday that it has now pumped nearly $3 million into the contest that helps fund a new round of attack ads depicting Ossoff as a rubber stamp for liberal leaders. The organization said it now has 90 full-time field operatives fanned out across the district.

The group seized on tallies from Ossoff’s finance report that showed he raised more than $500,000 from California donors and an additional $400,000 from New York residents.

“Does Ossoff think he’s not accountable to residents of Georgia’s 6th District since they didn’t pull their checkbooks out for him?” said Courtney Alexander, a spokeswoman for the fund.

Ossoff’s campaign manager, Keenan Pontoni, said his candidate has more than 10,000 contributors from Georgia, totaling more from in-state donors than any other candidate.

“That type of fundraising can change the nature of our politics and reflects the groundswell of grass-roots energy our campaign has been able to generate here in the district,” Pontoni said.

Other Ossoff critics took shots at the celebrity names that studded the long list of donors, including actress Connie Britton, singer-songwriting legend Judy Collins, comedian Chelsea Handler, actor John Leguizamo and TV personality Rosie O’Donnell. Some leveraged the out-of-state disparity to slam Ossoff for not living in the district.

“Jon Ossoff doesn’t live in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, and his campaign is funded entirely by donors who don’t live there either,” Georgia GOP Chairman John Padgett said.

(Ossoff grew up in the district but now lives near Emory University, where his longtime girlfriend attends medical school. He is not required by law to live in the district, and he has said he will move to the district if he wins.)

Ossoff, meanwhile, has dismissed the attacks as partisan hit jobs. He plans another round of canvassing this weekend, and Democratic volunteers are amassing at coffee shops in Dunwoody, Marietta and Sandy Springs on Saturday to knock on doors. He cited the nearly 200,000 donors who contributed to his campaign averaging less than $50 a pop.

“One of the things I’m proud of about my campaign is that we’ve raised money in small-dollar contributions,” Ossoff said, “which means that folks running for office are accountable to a broad range of people who dig deep for small amounts of money.”

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.