A blitz of Democratic candidates has split Georgia donors

(Lane Erickson/Dreamstime/TNS)

(Lane Erickson/Dreamstime/TNS)

The blitz of candidates seeking top political offices has forced Georgia Democrats to confront an issue their Republican counterparts know all too well: a dash for cash that has divided the party’s donor base.

The financial disclosures released this week highlight how the increased competition and lack of a clear leader in U.S. House and Senate races has split the party's establishment.

That’s familiar territory for state Republicans, who have fielded huge groups of candidates for high-profile races most of the past two decades. But Democrats are accustomed to more Spartan races featuring clear party favorites in recent elections.

That’s not the case this cycle, as Georgia’s 2020 battleground status and the prospect of dual U.S. Senate races have drawn a surge of interest from ambitious candidates, even as some of the state’s best-known Democrats have passed on a run.

With no Stacey Abrams or Sally Yates to clear the field, other candidates are jockeying to fill the void. And overall, they've trailed Senate candidates in other states, including Arizona, Iowa and Maine, where Democratic candidates have outraised Republican incumbents.

Jon Ossoff has quickly emerged as the most formidable Democratic fundraiser in the contest to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue, leaning on the network of donors he cultivated during his unsuccessful 2017 run in Georgia's 6th Congressional District to raise more than $800,000 in three weeks.

That far outpaced rivals who struggled to build hefty campaign accounts over the course of three months even though they’ve started to lock down support from important Democratic constituencies.

Former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, who has captured endorsements from well-known Democrats, raised about $380,000 from July to September — down about $140,000 from her haul during the opening months of her campaign.

Sarah Riggs Amico lagged, too, collecting $310,000 in her first report while loaning her campaign an additional $400,000. Her strategy of courting unions, long a central player in Democratic politics, gained some traction as she rolled out endorsements from two labor groups.

And Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry took in just $90,000 as he acknowledged that the party’s major donors were divided over whom to support but are largely united in spurning him — at least for now.

“I’m definitely not the establishment-money candidate,” Terry said. “There’s a lot of thinking with your head and not your heart with these donors. The traditional contributors aren’t supporting me, but I’m bringing in a lot of new people.”

The race to challenge Perdue, a former Fortune 500 chief executive who has $6.3 million in his campaign account, is not the only contest that has divided Democrats.

Four Democratic candidates have divvied up donors in the 7th Congressional District, the site last year of the nation's tightest U.S. House race. The district, which covers parts of Forsyth and Gwinnett counties, became a top target for national Democrats in 2020 after Republican U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville, announced he was retiring from Congress.

Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, who lost to Woodall in 2018 by fewer than 500 votes, has raised more than $280,000 with the help of former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and a slate of legislative supporters.

One of her chief rivals, state Sen. Zahra Karinshak, is close on her heels with about $200,000 in donations, including contributions from former Gov. Roy Barnes, ex-state Attorney General Thurbert Baker and former U.S. Rep. Buddy Darden.

And two other candidates — activist Nabilah Islam and state Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero — have carved up other contributions from grassroots donors and party operatives.

A familiar dilemma

It’s tricky terrain for Democrats, who have managed to avoid some bitter primary battles in recent elections.

Jason Carter was the only Democrat in the 2014 race for governor, and Michelle Nunn was the party’s pick for the U.S. Senate the same year. In 2016, Democrats settled on millionaire Jim Barksdale as a long-shot challenger to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, and Abrams entered the 2018 gubernatorial race with an edge.

It also presents a silver lining to candidates by forcing them to expand their base and rely on a new pool of supporters, said Joel Alvarado, a Democratic consultant. Several candidates have boasted about their high proportions of small-dollar donations and their out-of-state reach.

“This gives everyday hardworking Americans a chance to contribute, be engaged and ensure their concerns are heard,” he said. “We need to democratize campaign contributions where the few do not dictate what is best for the many.”

Republicans face the same dilemma, though for them it’s a more familiar one. Five viable GOP candidates ran for governor last year, and there would surely be a crowded race for Isakson’s seat if Gov. Brian Kemp wasn’t set to soon appoint someone to the post. About 500 people have already applied to the governor’s office for the job.

The race for Woodall's seat has attracted a half-dozen Republicans scrapping for the same donor base, and the leading candidates — former Home Depot executive Lynne Homrich, physician Rich McCormick and state Sen. Renee Unterman — all reported six-figure takes.

In the neighboring 6th Congressional District, where Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath has built a dominant fundraising advantage, the two top Republicans are locked in a bitter fundraising duel. Former U.S. Rep. Karen Handel has outraised state Sen. Brandon Beach, though neither can approach McBath's cache of $1.3 million.

‘If only $ votes’

The fundraising totals don’t translate to votes or a show of support in 2020. But they serve as an indicator of which candidates are locking up donors and attention in jumbled fields. And they’re an opportunity for campaigns to demonstrate they can mount a credible 2020 campaign.

It explains why Tomlinson and her supporters raced to downplay expectations ahead of this quarter’s deadline. Her campaign manager, Kendra Cotton, invoked Ossoff’s defeat in 2017 as she dismissed his fundraising totals on social media.

"If only $ votes," she wrote on Twitter, then referred to McBath's 2018 victory for the same seat "with not even a quarter of the resources."

Ossoff has ignored the broadside, and on Tuesday he announced his own slate of new supporters — a group of 20 black elected officials that included several prominent state lawmakers and county officials.

As the financial data emerged, Democrats grumbled that fundraising has sputtered partly because the prospect of a second U.S. Senate campaign, on top of a presidential contest, has complicated their money-raising appeals. Some drew a comparison with the White House race, which has some influential donors and activists still refusing to pick sides.

“It’s a disruptive election year. There’s a lot of money still sitting on the sidelines,” Terry said. “Whoever wins the primary will have the money they need to win this election. We just need to build that coalition to win the primary first.”