Special interest groups contribute heavily to GA politicians

Georgia’s congressmen have raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions this election cycle, even though most face either longshot challengers at the ballot box this November or no opponent at all.

An analysis of campaign finance data by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found the bulk of contributions to the Georgia lawmakers flowed from political action committees. The politicians drew heavily from interest groups and industries they oversee on Capitol Hill, records show.

The state’s top rainmaker in the House, Tom Price, a Roswell Republican, took in more than $2 million this cycle. His opponent, Democrat Jeffrey Kazanow, raised $6,500 and loaned himself another $30,000.

Of the $1 million Price raised from PACs, 46 percent came from the health and insurance industry, according to data compiled by the AJC and the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Price, the Republican Policy Committee chair, is one of the most vocal critics of President Barack Obama’s health care law. He also sits on the health subcommittee of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.

“They are regulating people and industries they are also dependent on for their re-election money,” said Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause. “And that’s why we have this huge problem of the special interests being so well-represented in Washington and regular people not so much.”

Far from simply being an election season necessity, raising money these days is a non-stop chore for members of Congress.

For incumbents, a healthy campaign war chest is essential not just to win re-election but also to mount a run for Senate or win a leadership post in the House, as members funnel their campaign cash to the party or to build goodwill. In addition, a formidable bank account also helps scare off potential challengers back home.

Only one congressional race in Georgia is deemed competitive by political experts this general election: Democrat John Barrow of Augusta, who has been targeted by Republicans largely because of newly redrawn district in the eastern part of the state. Still, 10 of the 13 incumbents seeking re-election raised at least $900,000. Three of them have no general election opponent.

One of those who has a free pass, Republican Lynn Westmoreland, still finds himself dialing for dollars in the “call suite” in the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Capitol Hill headquarters a few times a month.

“It’s terrible, it really is,” Westmoreland said. “I was on the phone yesterday all day.”

Added the Republican from Coweta County, “I don’t know that anybody up there could say that they enjoy raising money.”

Records show that one out of every three PAC dollars raised by Westmoreland came from the financial and insurance groups. Westmoreland sits on the Insurance, Housing and Community Opportunity subcommittee of the Financial Services panel.

Democrat John Lewis of Atlanta is a national figure because of his long tenure in the House and his profile as a hero of the civil rights era. So he raises enough cash to fund his own race then spreads the wealth.

“After it seems I have a good chance of winning my own primary, I try to use my resources to try to help other candidates in other races within our state or around the country, to assist the party as a whole,” Lewis said through a spokeswoman.

Lewis donated nearly $300,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and made some charitable contributions to organizations, including a pair of Atlanta churches.

The health and insurance industries are among the biggest givers on Capitol Hill, gave the most to Lewis’ campaign through PACs. Lewis sits on the Ways and Means Committee.

In the 11th congressional district in the northwestern Atlanta suburbs, Phil Gingrey has pocketed $1.6 million. That’s roughly 450 times more than his Democratic opponent, Patrick Thompson’s haul of $3,506.

Thompson said he made an early decision to run a shoestring effort because he believes money has a corrupting influence in politics.

“Its crazy. Ordinary people can’t run and that’s wrong,” said Thompson, a software consultant.

The largest recipients of PAC dollars as a percentage of their overall campaign spending in Georgia are Democrats. In Decatur, Hank Johnson collected 86 percent of his money from PACs. David Scott, who represents areas just south and west of Atlanta, took in 84 percent of his money from PACs.

But in the GOP-led House, Georgia’s Republicans usually raise more money. Even two of the newest members, Tom Graves of Ranger and Austin Scott of Tifton, each collected more than $1 million. Their PAC contributions rose substantially from when they became incumbents instead of mere candidates. Graves, a tea party favorite who won a special election in 2010, saw his proportion of money from PACs rise from 33 percent in 2010 to 47 percent this cycle through September.

Austin Scott did not have a challenger on the ballot in the primary or general elections. He still had raised $1.01 million this cycle, as of the end of September, when he had more than $272,000 in the bank. About half of his contributions came from PACs. Scott, who sits on the Agriculture and Armed Services committees, got $154,000 – nearly a third of his PAC money – from the agriculture, food service and defense industries.

Craig Holman, who lobbies for ethics and campaign finance reforms for Public Citizen, said some members benefit from being on “juice committees,” such as Energy and Commerce and Armed Services, that oversee deep-pocketed industries. Slots on those committees are highly coveted.

“When it comes to donors’ interest, they want access to the person who is overseeing their business and so … what committee you’re on will shape who’s going to be your major donors,” Holman said.

And the more money a member raises, the more he or she can give to the party or colleagues.

“Fundraising is perhaps the single most important tool for rising up in the ranks of leadership,” Holman said.

Boyle called deep pockets “a status symbol.”

“An incumbent will continue to raise money even without a serious challenge as a way to, you know, put out the message: ‘I’ve got a ton of money. Don’t even think of running against me.’ And that’s too bad. We shouldn’t have a system where to get into a race you need to come to the table with a million dollars. That’s a problem. That’s where we are right now,” Boyle said.

Caucus leaders are typically prodigious fundraisers. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has raised more than $300 million for Democrats since 2002.

Price, who is reportedly seeking the No. 4-ranking Republican leadership post, has donated money to 64 House GOP officeholders and candidates this cycle through his PAC, Voice for Freedom. Price’s likely competition, Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state, donated to 100 members and candidates.

Graves has donated to 34 Republican House colleagues or candidates through his Freedom Advancement Fund PAC as he has mounted a run for chairmanship of the conservative Republican Study Committee. His opponent for the post, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, has given to 107 members and hopefuls through his PAC.

Closed-door member votes for leadership spots will take place shortly after the election.

“To move up another rung on the ladder sometimes your ability to raise money is sometimes looked at,” Westmoreland said.

Westmoreland and others defend raising money from industries they oversee on committee posts, saying it’s natural for members of Congress to become friendly with people they seek out for information on a bill. Westmoreland says he often will take people from PACs out to dinner on his dime without asking for money just to build a rapport.

But it leaves outsiders scratching their heads.

“What possible reason could someone have to raise more than $ 1 million if they have no one running against them?” asked Thompson, the Democratic challenger. “I don’t think there is any clearer evidence that money corrupts than that.”

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