Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who is leading in the polls of gubernatorial hopefuls in the GOP primary, is raking in big campaign checks as the vote nears. HYOSUB SHIN/HSHIN@AJC.COm

Campaign reports before Georgia primary don’t offer complete picture

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle raised about $65,000 in high-dollar contributions for his gubernatorial campaign on Tuesday.

It wasn’t a particularly unusual day for his campaign. The Cagle team has taken in about $840,000 in such donations since the 2018 General Assembly session ended in late March, with much of the money coming from lobbyists, statehouse political action committees and state contractors.

But Georgians won’t get a full accounting before the May 22 primary of what Cagle or other candidates for statewide seats or General Assembly spots raised and spent in the two months leading up to the election because state law says they don’t have to provide one.

Early voting began Monday, April 30 for Georgia's primary elections.

Candidates don’t have to file full campaign disclosure reports of what they’ve raised and spent from early April until the beginning of July, more than a month after voters go to the polls to pick Republican and Democratic nominees.

Candidates have to file periodic “two-day reports” detailing contributions of $1,000 or more to their campaigns in the run-up to the primary. But not having reports on everything candidates raise and spend makes it impossible for the public to get the full picture during that vital period.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviewed more than 100 “two-day” reports from statewide candidates, and it found — through Wednesday — that they had collected more than $2 million in contributions of $1,000 or more. Most of that went to candidates in the governor’s race.

How much more was donated, who donated it, and how the money was spent won’t be made public until early July.

“It’s ridiculous that we don’t have pre-primary reports,” said Rick Thompson, a former director of the state ethics commission who runs a company that works with candidates to help them comply with reporting requirements. “Almost every other state has pre-election reporting.”

State Rep. Buzz Brockway, a Republican candidate for Georgia secretary of state, said the law needs to be changed.

“I think the public has the right to know who is financing the campaigns and what we are spending money on,” Brockway said. “Having this weird thing, not having to file until June 30, means members of the public don’t have all the information they need when they go to the polls.”

Candidates and their campaigns don’t necessarily like the setup either. Some statewide campaigns — such as for governor or insurance commissioner — have filed 15 or more such reports since the beginning of April. And they will have to do more as the money pours in leading up to the primary.

Thompson said the quirk in the law goes back to 2014, when the state moved its primaries up after a U.S. district judge ordered changes in Georgia’s election calendar to give military residents and other Georgians living overseas enough time to return absentee ballots by Election Day.

In the past, primaries were more likely to be in July, so the midyear campaign finance filings would come shortly before the vote. Now the last full report before the primaries is filed shortly after a March 31 deadline.

Because state officials such as Cagle and lawmakers are barred from raising money during legislative sessions, the March 31 reports show very little activity. Challengers not in office can raise money during that period.

The “two-day” reports provide a glimpse into some of the donations, and since March, they’ve largely tracked the kind of fundraising that has gone on since the races began.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News poll in April showed Cagle with a commanding lead over his Republican rivals in the race for governor, garnering 41 percent of likely GOP voters.

He was followed by two candidates who hope to keep him under the 50 percent threshold: Secretary of State Brian Kemp notched 10 percent, and ex-state Sen. Hunter Hill had 9 percent.

In the Democratic race, a separate AJC/Channel 2 poll showed former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams had doubled ex-state Rep. Stacey Evans’ support. But more than half of likely primary voters were still undecided.

Cagle has led the fundraising race from the start, proving to be the candidate of the statehouse crowd and institutional donors.

While Kemp, Hill and executive Clay Tippins, another Republican contender, have received dozens of big-money contributions since the beginning of April, the AJC review of the “two-day” reports shows Cagle has taken in more than all the other GOP candidates combined.

Donors who typically give to front-runners in the governor’s race all chipped in to Cagle with big checks. That includes nursing home operators that rely on government funding, well-connected lobbyists and PACs such as those created for AT&T and insurance firms. Among his recent supporters are former U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss and onetime Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers.

On Tuesday, the biggest donor was GEO Group, a Florida private prisons company with three facilities in Georgia. The company’s PAC, a regular donor to governors and leading candidates, gave $11,000.

Tippins and Hill continued to raise big money from leading business executives, such as Georgians in finance and real estate, and car dealership owners.

Kemp saw a windfall from members of the Georgia House who backed his campaign after the end of the 2018 session, Cagle’s finale as president of the Georgia Senate.

House Rules Chairman John Meadows, R-CalhounHouse Ways and Means Chairman Jay Powell, R-CamillaHouse Health and Human Services Chairwoman Sharon Cooper, R-MariettaHouse Insurance Chairman Richard Smith, R-Columbus, and House Regulated Industries Chairman Howard Maxwell, R-Dallas, were among the leading lawmakers who wrote Kemp’s campaign big checks.

A fifth Republican in the race, state Sen. Michael Williams, R-Cumming, reported receiving two checks of $1,000 or more since March 31.

On the Democratic side, Abrams has reported more outside money donated to her campaign than Evans. But Evans also loaned her campaign an additional $250,00o, on top of the $1.25 million she’s already put into the race.

Abrams, who is bidding to be the country’s first African-American female governor, is running a national fundraising campaign, and about 70 percent of her donors noted in the “two-day” reports were from out of state, while a vast majority of Evans’ contributions are local. That mirrors their overall rate of contributions.

The reports show a few businesses and interest groups, such as the state doctors’ lobby and companies with a big interest in state funding and policy, such as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia, have started giving money to several candidates in the race.

Candidates in other races are filing the reports regularly, too. For instance, former state Rep. Geoff Duncan, who is running as a Republican for lieutenant governor, filed his 19th “two-day” report Thursday. All since April 9.

One of his opponents, state Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth — who, like Cagle, is the candidate of the lobbyists, PACs and statehouse crowd — had filed eight as 0f Wednesday, and former state Sen. Rick Jeffares, a third GOP contender, had filed 11.

Sara Henderson, the executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, said candidates who win election this year need to change the system so the public gets a better idea of who is funding campaigns and how hopefuls are spending their money.

“The state’s filing deadlines need to be updated to reflect our new primary schedule,” she said. “The public has a right to know before they cast their vote as to how the candidates are paying for their campaigns.”

She said the lack of action to make the campaigns more transparent before the primaries raises questions.

“It’s a shame that this election season we’ll hear more talk about how honest and transparent candidates are, but the minute they’re sworn in, they are hesitant to work on reforming our state’s campaign finance laws,” she said. “Hopefully, this election year will prove me a liar.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Related Stories