In Georgia’s 2018 governor’s race, statehouse lobbyists are already voting with their wallets.
The top firms and the special interests they represent have almost exclusively written big checks in recent weeks to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of campaign disclosures filed last week.
Cagle, whom some pundits call the favorite to win the Republican nomination, has taken in more than 10 times as much money from lobbyists and statehouse political action committees as the other GOP candidates combined.
If Cagle has any competition for the lobby money, records show, it is from Georgia Senate President Pro Tem David Shafer, R-Duluth, who is running to replace him as lieutenant governor.
While the statehouse crowd is betting on Cagle — the Senate’s president — and Shafer as they attempt to climb to the peak of state political power, they also may be thinking about the General Assembly session that begins in January.
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Cagle and Shafer play a major role in deciding what legislation and funding gets approved by the Georgia Senate — and what doesn’t. Lobbyists can’t afford to be on the bad side of either because six months from now they will be asking Cagle and Shafer to support, or kill, legislation favored by their clients.
Lobbyists who contributed to the candidates say they’re going with the candidates they know, especially in the case of Cagle, who was first elected as lieutenant governor in 2006 and served 12 years in the Georgia Senate before that.
Lobbyists and business interests, after all, like stability.
“(Cagle) has been there, he’s shown leadership, he is not an unknown quantity,” said former state Sen. Ronnie Chance, a lobbyist for the Dish Network and fantasy sports businesses who gave $5,000 to Cagle’s campaign. “People are comfortable with Casey.”
Neill Herring, a longtime Sierra Club lobbyist who hasn’t donated to any of the gubernatorial candidates, said lobbyists and big business tend to “go with conventional wisdom.”
“They are really prone to herdlike behavior,” Herring said.
But lobbyists also know they need Cagle and Shafer on their side during the 2018 session.
“If your clients need a shot at the public treasury, you’ve got to support those guys,” Herring said, “because they hold the keys to the treasure house.”
When asked about the statehouse contributions, Scott Binkley, Cagle’s campaign manager, responded, “Georgians want a conservative leader as their next governor, and the strength of this support demonstrates that most of them see Casey as that leader.”
Big money race
The race to replace Gov. Nathan Deal, who will finish his second and final term in January 2019, has been going on for months.
Four Republicans have joined the contest: Cagle, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, and state Sens. Hunter Hill of Atlanta and Michael Williams of Cumming. Two top Democrats, former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams of Atlanta and state Rep. Stacey Evans of Smyrna, have also announced.
Republicans have run the statehouse for more than a decade and have won every statewide political race for almost as long. The four Republican candidates dominated fundraising during the initial reporting period, which ended June 30, each raising or loaning themselves more than $1 million.
The two biggest fundraisers were Cagle, at $2.7 million collected in a few months, and Kemp, at about $1.7 million.
Cagle’s campaign finance report showed overwhelming support from the statehouse crowd. Hill and Kemp reported contributions from 11 lobbyists or firms between them, totaling about $15,000. Cagle got checks from at least 37, totaling about $109,000, according to the AJC review.
While statehouse association PACs ignored the other three GOP candidates, at least 25 of them contributed $71,000 to Cagle’s campaign.
That doesn’t include donations from families with big companies that have a stake in state policy, such as the owners of Jackson Healthcare of Alpharetta, who have pushed for changes in medical malpractice laws and donated more than $50,000 in June.
Or the Colonial Group of Savannah, which gave $6,600 a few months after Cagle’s Senate passed a tax break on the final night of the session for giant yacht owners to help jump-start one of its businesses.
It also doesn’t include the $80,000 Cagle raised from state lawmakers, several times more than the other candidates.
Such fundraising isn’t new for Cagle, who has won three statewide elections and has long relied on lobbyists and the people they represent to fund his campaigns.
Earlier this year, the AJC reported that in the six months leading up to the 2017 legislative session, a fund created by his campaign staffers collected $2.2 million in high-dollar contributions, many coming from lobbyists, businesses and associations with a keen interest in the workings of the Georgia Senate.
That money can be used to promote Cagle’s agenda but not directly ask Georgians to vote for Cagle.
‘There is a balance’
In the lieutenant governor’s race, Shafer has taken a similar tact. A 15-year veteran of the General Assembly and a longtime GOP activist, Shafer collected about $150,000 in contributions from lobbyists and statehouse PACs in the weeks leading up the June 30 filing deadline.
Some of the statehouse donors have personal relationships with the politicians, particularly Cagle.
Brad Alexander of McGuireWoods, one of the top lobbying firms at the Capitol, served as Cagle’s chief of staff. He contributed $12,000, and McGuireWoods gave $2,500. The firm also made small donations to Hill and Kemp, and Robert Fortson, the senior vice president for state government relations, gave an additional $2,500 to Hill’s campaign.
GeorgiaLink is another lobbying firm with a long client list, including the Atlanta Braves, Comcast, the new car dealers and beer wholesalers associations, horse racing interests, the Georgia Hospital Association, Georgia Power, Koch Industries, Publix and UPS. The team of lobbyists gave Cagle about $21,000 on June 29.
“Casey is a good personal friend, and he has done a very good job as lieutenant governor,” said Trip Martin of GeorgiaLink. “He knows how the state works, he knows the budget. I don’t always get a ‘yes’ when I go in there (to see him). There is a balance.”
It’s not only big-business lobbyists who are giving to Cagle. Tom Lewis, a longtime lobbyist for Georgia State University, contributed $1,00o.
Lewis noted that Cagle’s sons attended the school and that the lieutenant governor and his wife have been regulars on campus attending events. Lewis, like Martin, called Cagle a longtime friend.
“When a lieutenant governor is running, lobbyists are going to look at that,” Lewis said. “He’s been lieutenant governor for many years, he’s touched a lot of people.”
Several lobbyists and their firms gave to both Cagle and Shafer.
Troutman Sanders lobbying chief and top Deal fundraiser Pete Robinson and his wife gave $13,200 to Cagle and $2,500 to Shafer’s campaign. (He also contributed $1,000 to Kemp’s.) Robert Highsmith, a prominent lobbyist with Holland & Knight, has served as Shafer’s campaign lawyer and contributed $3,000 to his lieutenant governor’s race. His firm gave $3,000 to Cagle’s campaign.
Capital crowd money expected
Most of those running expected Cagle, who served as a state senator before being elected lieutenant governor, and Shafer to corner the statehouse money market.
Hill, who became a state senator in 2013, said Cagle’s fundraising speaks to the “impressive number of political favors he has accrued during 23 years in the state Senate.”
“I believe my leadership experiences in the private sector and three tours of duty as an Army Ranger matter more to Georgians than political connections in Atlanta,” Hill said. “Casey can have the Capitol crowd. We’ll keep earning the support of hardworking Georgians.”
Kemp struck a similar argument, saying Georgia voters are “the only special-interest group that matters.”
In the lieutenant governor’s contest, Shafer says he is raising more money from every sector of Georgia, not just special interests.
“We raised the most money overall. We raised the most money from individuals,” he said. “We raised money from the greatest number of counties. Trade groups and their political action committees are simply a subset of our overall fundraising success.”
His opponents were quick to seize on his fundraising to depict him as vulnerable.
State Sen. Rick Jeffares’ campaign compared Shafer to former Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine — a failed gubernatorial candidate often accused of strong-arming the people he regulated for contributions, a charge he consistently denied.
Shafer served as Oxendine’s deputy before being elected to the Senate. He said such comparisons are inaccurate and that no lobbyists were pressured to give to his campaign. Jeffares’ spokesman Dan McLagan isn’t so sure.
“He can threaten lobbyists into giving him money, but 90 percent of those who wrote him checks won’t vote for him,” McLagan said.