Congressional candidates in Georgia are already pulling in large sums of money 19 months away from Election Day. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

Georgia candidates set early fundraising bar with millions from donors

Georgia’s top congressional candidates are already fundraising as if November were around the corner even though it’s 19 months until Election Day. And with the fields far from settled, contenders for the state’s most coveted seats have already raised millions of dollars.

With a slate of nationally watched contests up for grabs in 2020, the highest-profile candidates have been raising heaps of cash to scare off the competition and generate more buzz about their candidacies.

All told, candidates for Georgia’s two most competitive U.S. House seats raised more than $1.5 million over the past three months. And U.S. Sen. David Perdue, up for another term in 2020, tallied nearly $2 million in what’s expected to be the most expensive Senate race in state history.

The fundraising numbers don’t necessarily translate to votes or a show of support in 2020, but they serve as an important indicator of which Democrats are locking up donors and attention in jumbled fields that seem certain to grow even more crowded as the election nears.

And they were an early test for challengers, some with existing networks to leverage and others who are relative newcomers, to demonstrate to voters, interest groups and national operatives their commitment and ability to field a credible campaign.

One of the most watched reports came from U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Marietta, who is both the newest member of Georgia’s congressional delegation and its most vulnerable. She raised more than $481,000 during the first three months of the year, a formidable sum for this stage in the election cycle.

She collected a sizable chunk of her donations from the online fundraising platform ActBlue, which specializes in small-dollar contributions. She also accepted thousands from House Democratic colleagues and PACs affiliated with unions and interest groups.

McBath outpaced two of her Republican challengers in the 6th Congressional District, though the Democrat had far longer to raise cash through the reporting period, which stretched from January through March 31.

Former U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, who announced her comeback bid late last month, raised nearly $240,000 in about a week. That includes donations from groups affiliated with U.S. House Republican allies, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

She also reported $1,000 from Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, who is facing criticism over delaying court dates for his clients by citing his position in the Legislature.

Her Republican opponent in the 6th District race, state Sen. Brandon Beach, said he’ll report about $125,000 in contributions — largely from a pair of fundraisers he held during the legislative session. Georgia law prohibits state officials from raising cash during the session, but not federal candidates.

His contributors include some high-profile business executives, including GOP mega-donor Bernie Marcus, health care magnate Rick Jackson and real estate developer Steve Selig.

Next door in the 7th Congressional District, three Democratic candidates combined to raise about $500,000. But this is but the opening salvo: No high-profile Republican has entered the race yet, and more Democrats could also join the contest.

Democrats see the race for the seat — which covers parts of Gwinnett and Forsyth counties — as one of the party’s juiciest pickup opportunities: U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall’s narrow victory in November over Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux was the closest race in the nation.

Woodall isn’t running again, and Bourdeaux followed up his decision by launching another campaign for the seat. She’s raised $370,000 in the seven weeks since announcing her comeback bid. Her campaign said that haul is the most of any congressional challenger in the nation, excluding special elections.

Two other first-time Democratic candidates seeking to run to Bourdeaux’s left also reported their initial hauls: Marqus Cole took in about $32,000, while Nabilah Islam collected $100,000 — a particularly strong showing for a newcomer.

The field is set to at least double in size. A half-dozen well-known Republicans are considering a run, including state Sen. Renee Unterman. Joe Profit, a former pro football player who was soundly defeated by Democratic U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson last year, has announced he’ll run.

The most prominent — and costliest — Georgia race will surely be the contest for the U.S. Senate. Running for his second term, Perdue collected about $1.8 million this quarter and has about $3.3 million in cash on hand.

The other side of the ledger is blank for now.

Democrats didn’t report raising a single dollar, though that will change. Contenders are waiting for Stacey Abrams to decide whether to run before launching their campaigns, though former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson filed paperwork after the reporting deadline to begin raising cash.

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at www.ajc.com/politics.

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