Coronavirus complicates campaign fundraising in Georgia

Dacula resident Denis Haynes Jr. casts his paper ballot during a special election in March for the City Council. Georgia’s delayed primary election will be held June 9.(ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

The coronavirus pandemic took a toll on Georgia campaign fundraising over the first three months of the year, forcing contenders to find inventive ways to collect cash from donors amid a crisis that’s upended the economy.

They held virtual fundraisers and dial-up meetings instead of swanky country club soirees and living room gatherings. And they relied more on small-dollar donations, which could play an even more extensive part in state politics as the outbreak continues to hit the finances of candidates and voters.

The reports released this week, which cover the first three months of the year, are an important gauge of campaign strength at an uncertain time. The race for campaign cash could prove to be decisive ahead of June 9 primaries as contenders seek new ways to appeal to Georgians under a shelter-in-place order.

Even Georgia’s heaviest hitters strained to raise significant cash during a crisis that’s dried up bank accounts, sapped interest in elections and put an end to in-person campaigning.

U.S. Sen. David Perdue led the Georgia field, reporting more than $9 million in his campaign account for his re-election bid. But the first-term Republican, whose donor list is dotted with some of Georgia’s most prolific contributors, pushed to maintain his pace.

Over the final three months of 2019, the former Fortune 500 chief executive hauled in roughly $1.8 million. In the first three months of 2020, he collected about $1.6 million. His top Democratic opponent, Jon Ossoff, netted about $1 million over the same span.

And newly appointed U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and her top Republican adversary, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, each narrowly cracked the seven-figure mark despite droves of media attention for both of them and, in her case, the power of incumbency.

They were outraised by the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who has the backing of the state’s Democratic establishment and is trying to consolidate the party’s support in a November special election for Loeffler’s seat. The first-time candidate proved to be a formidable fundraiser, collecting $1.5 million since he announced his candidacy in late January.

Still, other Democrats without widespread name recognition or party support faced steeper fundraising challenges, including two contenders racing to challenge Perdue.

Former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson ended the quarter with $436,000 in her account. And Sarah Riggs Amico reported having $280,000, compelling her campaign to say she is prepared to write another check on top of the $750,000 she’s already loaned her campaign.

The glut of candidates for U.S. House races, too, has forced some to increasingly rely on their personal fortunes to boost their campaign. State Sen. Renee Unterman raised only about $80,000 over the past quarter, but she's sitting on a campaign account nearly 10 times that amount thanks to a $600,000 check she wrote her campaign.

‘Brain surgery’

Rome neurosurgeon John Cowan, among a handful of Republicans running for Congress in Georgia’s 14th District, released an ad that started with him roaming the halls of a hospital in surgical scrubs and ended with him at a shooting range firing an assault-style rifle at a viruslike target.

“Helping President Trump defend our God-given rights is not brain surgery,” said Cowan, who raised $520,000 this quarter. “But deranged Democrats and weak Republicans just don’t get it.”

Warnock, the pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, held a virtual fundraiser just before the reporting deadline with a special guest: Stacey Abrams, the former gubernatorial contender. She also sent repeated fundraising pleas saying that Warnock gives her hope “we can create a better and brighter future for all, not just the lucky few.”

Collins, a four-term congressman with close ties to President Donald Trump, peddled sets of "Drain the Swamp" straws on social media to raise cash for his campaign. And Ted Terry, a DeKalb County Commission candidate, sent a fundraising plea stocked with pictures of his campaign aides.

“Some campaigns had to lay off staff, during this dramatic dip in fundraising across the nation,” he wrote. “These are tough times for us all. I committed to my team all the way through to election day, and that is what are going to do.”

Many touted their prowess in attracting small-dollar donations. Ossoff reported that 97% of his donations came from contributions of less than $200, and Tomlinson trumpeted that the average donation amount she received over the past three months was $98.

Many candidates soon found themselves in the unusual position of consoling anxious supporters even as they urged them to donate money. Ed Tarver, a former federal prosecutor running for Loeffler’s seat, was hard-pressed to ask one donor for a contribution after he detailed his concerns about paying his mortgage and his daughter’s dental bills.

“It’s heartbreaking. So many folks need assistance and they need it immediately,” Tarver said. “I’m not sure how the other candidates feel, but it’s very difficult in this environment to aggressively pursue folks who are talking to me about meeting their daily challenges.”

TOP FUNDRAISERS IN KEY U.S. HOUSE RACES

Candidates for federal office recently reported their fundraising totals for the first three months of the year.

6th Congressional District

U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, Democrat (incumbent, no primary): $1 million raised, $2.6 million cash on hand

Karen Handel, Republican: $283,155 raised, $966,366 cash on hand

7th Congressional District

Rich McCormick, Republican: $202,275 raised, $542,147 cash on hand

Carolyn Bourdeaux, Democrat: $326,131 raised, $1 million cash on hand

14th Congressional District

John Cowan, Republican: $521,582 raised, $452,764 in cash on hand

Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican: $154,432 raised, $490,014 in cash on hand

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