Once it became clear Brian Kemp would be the Republican nominee for governor, lobbyists started showing up en masse Tuesday night at the downtown Athens Holiday Inn, where the candidate was celebrating his big win.
They strained to be seen by Kemp or his aides, posed for pictures and posted congratulatory notes on social media.
The Capitol crowd — lobbyists, special-interest PACs and institutional donors — had gone big for Kemp’s runoff opponent, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state, reveled in the notion that he wouldn’t owe them anything if he won.
But they owed him something. And now it was time to pay up.
The Capitol gang has a new man in the governor’s race, and it is already donating to Kemp’s campaign.
In fact, polls had been showing Kemp in the lead for a few weeks, and some lobbyists and special interests got a head start, according to recently filed disclosure reports reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
About two-dozen Cagle supporters — lobbyists and other individuals, as well as businesses that backed the lieutenant governor — contributed to Kemp’s campaign in the days leading up to Tuesday’s runoff and, in a few cases, on Election Day.
Facing a strong fundraiser in the general election, Democrat Stacey Abrams, the Kemp campaign is happy to receive the financial help.
“If you are a lobbyist or big-business guy or a Cagle guy, come on board, but we’re not changing our message,” said Ryan Mahoney, the Republican’s spokesman. “Just because you cut a check doesn’t mean we are going to change what we pledge to do. I think they are smart enough to know Brian Kemp can’t be bought.”
It’s no secret who the Capitol gang backed in the governor’s race. Cagle raised more than $11.6 million, with big chunks of money coming from lobbyists, their clients, professional and other special-interest political action committees, and institutional donors with interest in what goes on at the Capitol.
The AJC reported in June that Cagle had received money from more than 100 lobbyists, and “independent” groups that ran advertising supporting his campaign also were heavily funded by lobbyists and other special interests.
Cagle said he didn’t always side with special-interest donors. He noted, for instance, that Delta Air Lines was a contributor, but he still pulled the rug out from under the airline, blocking a proposed tax break on fuel it wanted, after the company distanced itself from the National Rifle Association.
While Cagle had a big money advantage over Kemp — Cagle raised about twice as much as his rival — the lobby and PAC contributions also gave opponents ammunition to brand him the ultimate Statehouse insider at a time when the Republican base is enamored with President Donald Trump, who ran as the ultimate outsider.
Once polls started showing Kemp leading Cagle in the GOP runoff race, some started hedging their bets, particularly after Trump endorsed the new front-runner on July 18.
Two days after the Trump endorsement, and four days before the runoff, Kemp’s campaign received $5,000 from Enterprise Hotels of Orlando, according to campaign disclosures. Enterprise Hotels is part of a high-end hotel chain owned by Richard Kessler, who gave $11,000 to Cagle’s campaign.
The same day Kemp received $6,500 from Hamrick Consulting of Athens. Linda Hamrick, a statehouse lobbyist, had contributed $6,600 to Cagle in May.
Cigarette maker Altria gave Cagle $10,500, contributing before and after the May primary. Four days before the runoff, it gave $3,900 to Kemp.
On Election Day, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based HN1 Therapy Network, which is contracted to coordinate outpatient therapy for government health care programs, contributed $5,000 to Kemp. It had previously given $5,000 to Cagle.
Robert Highsmith, a lobbyist who represents the city of Atlanta, the Atlanta Hawks, MARTA, gaming giant Caesars Entertainment, Verizon and the small-loan company Titlemax, gave $3,900 to Kemp the day before the election and $6,600 on Election Day. He had given $6,600 to Cagle and his law firm gave $3,000 last year.
Highsmith said the money was “committed” to Kemp the morning of July 18, before the Trump endorsement. He said some of his clients also chipped in for Kemp.
Highsmith is a longtime GOP activist, and he’d supported both Cagle and Kemp in past campaigns. But he committed to Cagle early, before Kemp was in the race, and stuck with him, almost to the end.
“When it became apparent to me that it was highly unlikely Casey would win the election, we wanted to support Brian the way we supported Casey,” Highsmith said.
Because Cagle and Kemp have long held elected office, most denizens of the Statehouse had worked with both for years.
Chip Lake, a GOP consultant who advised Geoff Duncan in his successful GOP lieutenant governor’s campaign, said most people give for one or more of three reasons: they know the candidate personally, they have an ideological or industry connection, or they are trying to go with the winner.
He said donors who gave before the election results were in wanted to be on the record supporting the winner.
“They want to make sure they are in before the movie starts,” Lake said. “In politics, the price of admission is a whole lot more after the movie begins.”
While the contributions from lobbyists are rolling in, Abrams, the Democrat, is setting records for the number of donors, both in Georgia and nationally, and isn’t worried about being overwhelmed financially. Outside groups raised more than $2.8 million for her campaign during the first half of the year, and mega-donors such as George Soros, have committed to help her effort.
State Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, said some business lobbyists who backed Cagle might want to think twice before giving Kemp their money considering his advocacy for legislation she says would hurt their interests, such as “religious liberty” measures.
“I think it was no accident that the business community and lobbying community backed Cagle,” Orrock said. “I think it would be a real mistake in judgment to think Brian Kemp will suddenly shake free from his far-right-wing base that he has deliberately cultivated and lead the state along a path of commonsense economic development.”
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