Cagle is the Georgia Capitol crowd’s man for governor

In the months leading up to this year’s General Assembly session, the statehouse crowd made it clear Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle was their candidate for governor.

Lobbyists, political action committees and legacy donors who traditionally side with the winners in governor’s races poured money into Cagle’s bid to replace Gov. Nathan Deal, according to a review of campaign filings by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Besides being their betting favorite, the lobbyists, PACs and corporations had another reason to support Cagle: As Senate president, he is somebody they need to help block or back their legislation during the 2018 session.

"He is the presiding officer of the state Senate, therefore all legislation going before the Senate is overlooked and guided by the lieutenant governor," said veteran lobbyist Mo Thrash, who is battling legislation that could increase taxes on Georgians who buy used cars. "He is our leader in the Senate, and we are going to support him as the leader of the state Senate."

Such overwhelming support from the Capitol has cemented Cagle’s status as the frontrunner in this year’s governor’s race.

In the six months leading up to this session, Cagle’s campaign raised at least $137,000 from about 50 statehouse lobbyists and their family members, and an additional $200,000 from Capitol PACs.

The nursing home industry — which relies on about $1 billion in state funding to operate — contributed well over $100,000 during that period.

About 75 auto dealers — some of whom back, some of whom oppose, the legislation on car taxes — contributed about $145,000. Executives at Centene, a St. Louis company that is one of the state's largest health care contractors, contributed nearly $70,000.

And other traditional major donors — from top state road contractors such as C.W. Matthews, the Leebern family of Georgia Crown Distributing, and big companies such as Delta Air Lines — helped fill Cagle's coffers to make him the overwhelming king of campaign cash with only a few months to go before the May 22 primary.

For Cagle, the pre-session fundraising period was vital because he’s not allowed to raise money during the General Assembly session. Three of his leading opponents stepped down from office last year in part to avoid the restrictions.

Since July 1, Cagle’s campaign has raised $4 million, about as much in donations as his four Republican opponents combined, and far more than the Democratic contenders, according to campaign disclosure reports.

But just as obvious in the reports, if not more so, are the tell-tale signs that the Capitol crowd has gone all in on Cagle.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a former state lawmaker, and ex-state Sen. Hunter Hill, two of Cagle’s rivals, received a little campaign money from lobbyists and associations.

But their totals from the statehouse were tiny compared to the windfall Cagle — a former state senator — took in as the session approached.

Cagle’s take from the Capitol and from traditional big-money donors has made it easy for opponents to label him a pawn of statehouse insiders in a governor’s race peopled by candidates promising big changes.

“For more than two decades, special interests have poured money into Casey Cagle’s campaign coffers because they know they can control his votes,” said Clay Tippins, a Republican businessman running for public office for the first time. “Voters in Georgia are tired of this same old, self-serving and slimy politics.”

Another Republican rival, Hill, said through a spokesman that the latest financial reports only scratch the surface.

“For 24 years, lobbyists have paid the money in and Casey Cagle has dealt out the favors,” said Cody Hall, a spokesman for Hill. “Georgians want a battle-tested leader — not a weak career politician.”

Cagle’s campaign brushed off the criticism.

“Casey’s opponents are letting their frustration get the best of them. Casey’s just worked harder and built relationships with Georgians who believe in his leadership,” said Scott Binkley, his campaign manager.

There are trends on the Democratic side of the governor’s race as well, as there are in down-ballot contests.

For instance, former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, a Democratic candidate for governor, has raised 60 percent of her campaign cash since July 1 from out-of-state donors, including Hollywood stars, unions and liberal groups.

Former state Rep. Stacey Evans, her opponent, got 93 percent of her contributions from inside Georgia and loaded up on money from attorneys.

In the lieutenant governor’s race, state Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, far outpaced his opponents thanks in part to the same interests that supported Cagle: Once a Senate leader, he has many of the statehouse lobbyists, PACs and establishment donors on his side.

Cagle, like Shafer, has long done well with the Capitol bunch, many of whom profess longtime support for him and his causes.

“I have supported Casey Cagle in everything he has done,” said Robert Highsmith, a veteran lobbyist and former legal aide to Gov. Sonny Perdue who contributed $6,600 during a week around the new year. “I supported him against Ralph Reed (for lieutenant governor), I was one of the first on his steering committee in 2009.”

While he expressed fondness for some of the other Republican candidates, Highsmith said Cagle “was the first candidate who asked for my support in this election, and I supported him.”

Among others, Highsmith represents the city of Atlanta and MARTA, which has keen interest in a major transit bill being discussed by lawmakers.

Thrash, another statehouse regular, lobbies for the Georgia Independent Automobile Dealers Association, which represents used-car dealers. His group has been in a tug of war for years with the new-car dealers' association over how buyers are taxed.

New-car dealers say they are at a disadvantage because used-car buyers pay taxes based on the lower book value of their auto, not what they paid for it. New-car buyers pay taxes on the sales price.

New-car dealers want all cars taxed at the sales price, and the House passed legislation last year making that change, only to have it stall in the Senate.

Thrash’s group has characterized the legislation — which is back before the General Assembly this session — as an average tax increase of $300 on used-car buyers.

He credits Cagle with stopping the bill in the Senate in the past. “He has kept used-car buyers from a tax increase” for several years, Thrash said.

Delta Air Lines contributed $4,000 to Cagle’s campaign less than a month before the start of the session. A longtime Delta lobbyist, Harold Bevis, gave $750, while a new Delta lobbyist, David Werner, a former executive counsel to Deal, gave $250 in the months before the session.

Members of another big lobbying firm hired about a week ago by Delta — GeorgiaLink — gave Cagle’s campaign $21,000 on June 29.

Delta is backing a jet fuel tax exemption sponsored by Deal's administration, a measure that would save airlines and cargo companies more than $50 million a year. It has garnered little opposition in the House, despite the fact that the same chamber led the charge to repeal a similar tax break in 2015.

The tax break may run into more opposition in Cagle's Senate, where one of his gubernatorial opponents, state Sen. Michael Williams, R-Cumming, has called it "corporate welfare for Delta." Needless to say, Delta didn't contribute to Williams' gubernatorial campaign. But they may need friends in the Senate.

In a statement, the air carrier said, “Delta Air Lines supports a diverse selection of candidates who are focused on making Georgia a great place for businesses to operate and for employees to live and work.”

Delta officials weren't the only corporate interests looking for a tax break this session who gave. Las Vegas-based Switch, which is building a data center campus in Douglas County and would benefit from a tax break proposed in the Georgia House, contributed $6,300 to Cagle's campaign.

Two other GeorgiaLink clients — DraftKings and FanDuel — each contributed $5,000 to Cagle’s campaign on Sept. 27.

The House passed a bill during the 2017 session to allow fantasy sports so powerhouses such as DraftKings and FanDuel would be able to operate in Georgia without fear of prosecution for illegal gaming. The measure stalled in Cagle's Senate, but it is still alive for a vote during the 2018 session.

Cagle has had two outlets for big Capitol and establishment fundraising.

Besides his campaign account, his fundraiser has also been taking in millions of dollars from the statehouse crowd and big companies for something called the Georgia Conservatives Fund. Unlike his state campaign, there is no limit on how much donors can give to the fund, and it has taken in contributions of up to $100,000 a pop.

Much of the money flowed in the months leading up to the 2017 General Assembly session.

While lobbyists and corporate interests have long backed Cagle’s campaigns, some of the donors say others contributors gave this year because they need the lieutenant governor on their side during the 2018 session.

Still, Steve Anthony, a retired political scientist and onetime executive director of the Georgia Democratic Party, said it’s also clear that the traditional donors who usually spend big on the winners of state gubernatorial races have chosen their candidate.

“The power structure in business and government is lined up behind him,” Anthony said. “It’s not split, it’s not splintered, they are all behind him. It’s more than just that he’s lieutenant governor. They’re betting he is going to win the primary.”

And in Georgia, since 2002, that’s meant the governor’s race.