Reed poised for runoff, while Atlanta’s other mayoral hopefuls boast broader support

Money race holds clues to Atlanta mayoral candidates’ strengths.
Atlanta Mayoral candidates Antonio Brown (from left), Andre Dickens, Sharon Gay, Felicia Moore and Kasim Reed participate in the Atlanta mayoral forum at Clark Atlanta University, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. (Courtesy of Council for Quality Growth)

Credit: Courtesy of Council for Quality Growth

Credit: Courtesy of Council for Quality Growth

Atlanta Mayoral candidates Antonio Brown (from left), Andre Dickens, Sharon Gay, Felicia Moore and Kasim Reed participate in the Atlanta mayoral forum at Clark Atlanta University, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. (Courtesy of Council for Quality Growth)

A new poll released last week by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found voters largely undecided when it came to who will be the next mayor of Atlanta.

But the money behind the candidates shows clear favorites and hints at how the candidates plan to win.

The picture so far shows former mayor Kasim Reed, City Council President Felicia Moore and attorney Sharon Gay as the candidates with the most financial resources. But a deeper dive into the candidates’ campaign finance reports shows a more nuanced picture.

Gay topped the list in candidates’ June 30 reports with an impressive $1.1 million in campaign cash, narrowly edging out Reed in the total haul by just $44,000. Gay was aided by the fact that her legal practice gave her immediate access to well-heeled donors in the real estate and development community.

That money has paid for a series of campaign ads where Gay promises to target crime and crumbling neighborhoods if elected. However, her fundraising is bolstered by $710,000 in personal loans she made to the campaign. Without those loans, Gay would be fourth in the money race behind Councilman Andre Dickens.

Self-funding a campaign is a legitimate tactic (Reed has loaned his campaign $28,000), but it can call into question a candidate’s level of popular support. Dickens, for example, has raised about half as much money as Gay but has twice the number of contributors.

Viewed this way, Moore tops the list in the total number of itemized individual contributions with 1,332, followed by Dickens and then Reed. But that, too, needs some context.

Reed announced his return to city politics in early June, just a few weeks before the filing deadline. That was not much time to ask for contributions, yet he managed to pile up more donor cash than anyone else.

Reed’s early success in raising money rests on his ability to tap wealthy donors both inside and outside of Atlanta. The former mayor raised 44% of his total contributions from outside the city. And many of the contributions were at the legal limit.

Campaign spokeswoman Anne Torres said Reed’s unique position as the last major candidate to join the race while still resting near the top of the money race shows the strength of his campaign. Torres pointed out that the former mayor pulled in more than $500,000 from his first fundraiser alone.

“This outpouring of unprecedented support from grassroots donations and from community and business leaders across the city is a clear indication that his commitment to making every neighborhood in Atlanta safe is resonating with voters,” she said in a statement.

In his first campaign filing, Reed logged 108 maximum donations of $4,300 totaling $464,400. It’s a gaudy total of top donors, but inside those numbers there’s an even more significant edge.

State law limits contributions in municipal races to $4,300. That covers $2,800 for the general election and $1,500 for an all-but-certain runoff between the top two voter-getters in the Nov. 2 general election. By encouraging donors to max out in both the general and Nov. 30 runoff, Reed is building a sizable war chest for what his campaign likely envisions as the final battle.

This strategy produced an average contribution to Reed’s campaign of $1,357, dwarfing most of his rivals. Moore’s average donor gave $562, almost two and a half times smaller than Reed’s average. Dickens had an average donation of $648.

Only Gay exceeded the former mayor’s average donation, making the most of her smaller donor base with a $2,088 average donation. However, she had relatively few maxed-out donations, meaning she had less in the bank for a possible runoff when she filed her last report.

Large individual donations are handy when running an expensive campaign. But size isn’t everything. Donors from outside of Atlanta can’t vote and 45% of Reed’s money came from donors outside the city of Atlanta or out of state.

Georgia State University political science professor Jeff Lazarus said analyzing campaign reports by the number of donors gives a “fuzzy idea of how viable a candidate is by what their donation network looks like.” But that’s not the whole story.

These days, campaigns at all levels, even for a city mayor, have been nationalized to such an extent that donor counts have to be viewed with some skepticism, Lazarus said. Donors can be scattered around the country.

“None of them are going to vote for you,” he said.

Grassroots strength

Moore, on the other hand, tapped into a deep well of city-dwelling donors for her summer campaign disclosure, with just 9% of her money coming from out of town.

Moore also has reached out for more smaller donations, logging more than 400 contributions of $100 or less. Reed had just nine donations that small. At the same time, she leaned heavily on Buckhead for about a third of her total haul, more than any other candidate.

Antonio Brown is the outlier in this equation. Brown, elected to the City Council in 2019, relied more heavily than anyone on small-dollar donors. Two-thirds of his campaign’s $309,676 in donations came in at $100 or less.

Like Reed, Brown was a late entrant into the race. While Brown trailed in the money race, campaign spokesman Lance Jones said raising that amount in small donations in less than two months before the June 30 filing deadline shows Brown has broad support.

“What’s unique about our network is that it’s built with activists and grassroots donors,” he said.

Jones namechecked Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in describing not just Brown’s politics, but his approach to coalition building and how that translates into lots of individual donors.

But relying on those donations presents challenges too. “For every five calls we make, it’s one call for (other candidates),” he said. Getting those fund-raising calls done is in the time left is the struggle, he said.

“Of all the things we have, time is not one of them,” he said.

New reports due in two weeks

The next round of campaign disclosures are due at the end of the month. Those reports will answer some important questions, including whether Reed’s initial flood of donations is sustainable and whether candidates like Dickens and Brown have the money to get their message out to the 41% of voters who remain undecided in the AJC’s poll. Like Dickens and Brown, Gay is polling in the single digits, but she has shown the ability to tap high-dollar donors and self-fund her campaign when needed.

A spokesman for Dickens said the campaign is feeling good about its fundraising heading into the new filing period and emphasized the number of small-dollar donations that have come in. Those are votes, the spokesman said.

But candidates have to have the money to get their message out. Lazarus, the Georgia State professor, said television is still the way to reach the broadest segment of voters, but it’s a “shotgun” approach compared to microtargeting voters on social media.

“You pay a lot less for social media, but it’s just as effective,” he said.

That gives candidates less well known to voters an opening to get their message out in a way that doesn’t break the bank.

“Those TV ads are still the way you reach the largest number of eyeballs. It’s just not the only thing anymore,” he said.

How we got the story

Candidates for public office are required to make periodic reports of their campaign contributions, loans and expenditures. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution examined the contributions for the major candidates for mayor of Atlanta and analyzed those reports for this story. You can view the reports on the city’s campaign finance portal here: