Campaign season heats up early this year in Georgia

The notion of a traditional Labor Day kickoff for general election politicking wilted in the summer heat this year as an onslaught of outside spending and negative attacks jolted Georgia.

Loosened restrictions on outside spending, combined with Georgia’s most competitive governor’s and U.S. Senate races in more than a decade, have brought an endless campaign season — deluging voters earlier than normal.

“My mind is so adamantly made up, so it’s just a waste of time at this point. It’s tiresome. And it gets annoying when the ads attack a candidate I’ve chosen — especially when I find them unfair,” said Jennifer Simmons, a 52-year-old Alpharetta accountant. “It just cements my opinion that much stronger, that I’ve made my choice.”

Simmons and those like her end up as collateral damage as the campaigns and their allied political action committees seek impressionable voters who are paying only passing attention to politics. The battles atop Georgia’s ticket have attracted national attention and money to an unprecedented degree this early.

A surge of outside money

Outside money has surged most into the U.S. Senate contest, a key race that could decide which party controls the chamber next year.

The fiscally conservative Ending Spending Action Fund Super PAC has spent $1 million since late July to attack Democrat Michelle Nunn, much of it as Republican David Perdue was crossing the finish line in a draining primary runoff. The National Republican Senatorial Committee reserved $2.5 million of airtime in August and September to bash Nunn, as well.

The American Chemistry Council, a trade group for chemical companies, spent $720,000 on ads promoting Perdue as a future partner to Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia.

The Nunn campaign spent more than $2 million on ads of its own in late July and August, and it went negative on Perdue in response to the attacks on her. Emily’s List, a group that backs women who support abortion rights, jumped in the fray with a $1 million buy in late August attacking Perdue.

The money and the vitriol is flowing as well in Republican Gov. Nathan Deal’s race against Democrat Jason Carter.

The Republican Governors Association dropped $1.5 million on ads that cast Carter as a “liberal trial lawyer” and questioned his willingness to expand Medicaid. Campaign finance disclosures show that Deal’s campaign, at the least, has spent an additional $2.4 million this year on TV and digital ads.

More outside help for the governor could soon be on the way. The RGA has reserved time to unleash a new volley of ads boosting Deal as November nears. And the governor is also courting casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire who is a major GOP benefactor, to chip in to his campaign.

Carter’s campaign has poured more than $1.3 million into ad buys. But while the Democrat has outraised Deal by more than $1 million this year, he has had little backing from powerful outside organizations such as the Democratic Governors Association.

A Senate barrage

Two key factors have produced the onslaught.

First, this is the most competitive statewide election year for Georgia since 2002, when Republicans Sonny Perdue — David’s cousin — and Saxby Chambliss toppled incumbent Democrats for governor and U.S. senator, respectively. That year, the primary elections were delayed until late August because of redistricting, and Gov. Roy Barnes’ record-setting war chest allowed him to start his television barrage in April.

Second, a new era in campaign finance has arrived since federal court decisions in 2010 set the stage for “Super PACs,” outside groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts as long as they don’t coordinate with campaigns.

Ending Spending, started by Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, falls into this category. It had raised $4.7 million from just 11 donors in this election cycle through July.

The group’s president, Brian Baker, said his Georgia strategy involves keeping a negative spotlight on Nunn even as Republicans were beating up on each other in their primary. Ending Spending also spent $1 million during the Senate GOP primary attacking U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey, a Marietta Republican who was considered a weaker potential candidate in a general election against Nunn.

“The best thing outside groups can do is find what I call strategic holes and fill them,” Baker said. “That’s what our Super PAC has always tried to be about.”

The approach put Nunn on the defensive, and she aired a mix of positive spots highlighting her nonprofit experience and the endorsement of former Gov. Zell Miller and negative ads smacking Perdue’s business record. Her first big attack was a retelling of the bankruptcy of North Carolina textile maker Pillowtex, where Perdue had been the CEO.

“The Nunn folks clearly understand they’re behind,” Perdue campaign strategist Derrick Dickey said. “They’re firing off a couple bullets they weren’t planning on using until later in the campaign. If they let this thing slip away, they will lose the national money and be left on their own.”

Polling has been mixed, but most public surveys show Perdue ahead.

“David Perdue says he should be elected because he’s worked in the ‘real world,’ and Georgia voters deserve to know what that record entails,” Nunn strategist Nathan Click said.

Potshots in the governor’s race

The governor’s race reached new levels of sniping in August as well.

Carter seized upon new revelations in an ethics case involving Deal and an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story detailing how Deal-appointed state board members lean heavily toward white male campaign contributors. He also unleashed a three-day messaging blitz after federal data showed Georgia had the nation’s second-highest jobless rate.

Deal attempted to tie President Jimmy Carter’s controversial views on the Middle East conflict to his grandson’s campaign as war raged between Israel and Hamas. He criticized Carter’s remarks that workers at the state economic development office essentially “set up ribbon cuttings” and questioned his opponent’s plan for boosting education funding.

While Deal can lean on outside help, Carter has yet to see much support from his allies. Better Georgia, the left-leaning group that is Carter’s most strident outside supporter, has only a fraction of the financial firepower of large Washington-based groups.

More money, more problems

The tide of outside spending will only increase as November nears, and both national parties are likely to be among the biggest players.

One sign of the state’s rising status in the political constellation: The leaders of both national party organizations visited Georgia in the past two weeks to boost their candidates — and get an earful from local party officials on the need for more support.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, pointed to changing demographics that give her hope that her party can establish a new beachhead in the South. She vowed “Democrats are competing to win in Georgia.”

Her visit came days after Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, stumped with Perdue in Cobb County. He wouldn’t say how much the organization plans to spend in Georgia but said it would be “as much as it has to be” to help GOP candidates win in November.

Such talk makes people like Leona Robinson, a 66-year-old retiree from Vidalia, want to unplug her TV for good.

“I don’t like any of them, period. They are frustrating and annoying,” Robinson said of the candidates. “I hate this time of the year, and when it’s a presidential election it’s even worse. All the advertising. You can’t tell who you want to vote for because both of them are telling you how bad the other one is.”

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