Georgia donors pour millions into 2020 hopefuls’ campaigns

Georgia Democrats pumping money into the 2020 race are divided over which candidate to support, underscoring the uncertainty of a nominating contest to challenge President Donald Trump that could last beyond the state’s March 24 primary.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of thousands of federal financial records showed that Pete Buttigieg was the leading Democratic fundraiser in Georgia over the course of 2019 by collecting roughly $800,000 from in-state donors, though the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., held a narrow cash lead.

Just behind him at around $680,000 from Georgia supporters was former Vice President Joe Biden, who has led the state in recent polls and hopes that African American voters in Georgia and across the South can help him revive his hobbling campaign.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has built a powerful fundraising machine fueled by small-dollar contributions, raised roughly $500,000 from Georgia donors, including some who strung out contributions as little as $1 for weeks at a time.

His top rival for liberal support, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, took in about $350,000 from Georgia donors.

Donations to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s dramatically ramped up in the final quarter of 2019. Though she trailed the four other leading contenders in Georgia, with about $260,000 from in-state donors, her campaign haul in the final three months of the year was roughly triple the previous three months.

In all, there were about 33,000 contributions from donors who gave at least $200 over the course of 2019, raising about $2.5 million for the top five Democratic candidates in the contest.

That doesn’t include the roughly $450,000 raised by U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, who dropped out of the contest in December, or the $258,000 Andrew Yang collected before exiting the race this month.

It also doesn’t include Mike Bloomberg, the multibillionaire who is self-financing his campaign and not aggressively seeking donations.

Awaiting the Democratic nominee is Trump, who won the state by 5 percentage points in 2016. Confident Georgia Republicans restocked his campaign coffers, pumping more than $2.5 million into his campaign and political action committee over the past year.

Between donations to Trump and to the top five Democratic candidates, Georgians have spent more than $5 million to influence the presidential race.

The fundraising figures are drawn from Federal Election Commission reports that include itemized donations through 2019 for donors who have contributed at least $200.

Many reached that threshold with repeated contributions in small amounts — particularly Sanders’ supporters, who gave an average itemized contribution of $35. Warren supporters gave an average itemized contribution of $55; Buttigieg supporters, $125; Biden supporters, $146; and Klobuchar supporters came in highest at $195.

These figures do not include tens of thousands of small-dollar donations — contributions of, say, $5 or $10 that don’t add up to the $200 threshold for reporting — often collected by organizations such as ActBlue for the Democrats and WinRed for Republicans.

‘Second nature’

Dueling events held in Atlanta on the same day in June provided a closer look at the two top fundraising machines.

At a small closed-door gathering at Manuel’s Tavern, Buttigieg told a crowd of a few dozen well-heeled donors that he was on “hallowed ground” at the refurbished bar, nodding to the countless local and national Democrats who had held events and fundraisers there.

Then he promptly staked out ideological middle ground in the fractious contest, warning that Trump “can absolutely win again, as unpopular as he may seem,” if Democrats nominate a candidate who “looks like we are preserving the system.”

Though Buttigieg has raked in small-dollar contributions to pad his account, many have given him far greater sums. Mitch Spolan and his wife are among Buttigieg’s top supporters in Georgia.

“He doesn’t seem to overpromise,” Spolan said. “His ideas are logical and achievable dreams that could also appeal to some of my best friends who have voted Republican.”

A few hours after Buttigieg’s event, Biden held court at the Ansley Park home of Mack Wilbourn in a room full of notable names. Former Gov. Roy Barnes was there, as was Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young.

The former vice president spoke for about 30 minutes, thanking the crowd and pointing out the movers and shakers in the room. He singled out Young, saying we “owe you a big debt of gratitude” and then nodded to Barnes.

“I can’t tell you how much we’d like to see another Democratic governor here,” he said.

The big checks that rolled in that day were a counterweight to the small change that Cato Walthour Jr. has been reliably donating to Biden every week, often in increments of $3 or $5.

After decades of work at a paper mill near his Allenhurst home, Walthour watches the nightly news seething at Trump — and figures Biden is the best candidate to beat the president.

Walthour isn’t discouraged by Biden’s dismal finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, though he admits he’ll abandon the former vice president for another candidate if he has to do so.

“I just want someone to beat Trump. That’s all. I want that fool out of there. It doesn’t matter who — I just want him out of office,” he said. Of his regular donations, Walthour said he hardly notices them. “It’s second nature,” he said.

Lost time

If Buttigieg and Biden are squabbling over Georgia’s moderate middle, Sanders has emerged as the front-runner of the ideological left. The Vermont senator emerged from Iowa’s problem-plagued caucus in a virtual tie with Buttigieg, then narrowly defeated him in New Hampshire’s primary.

Sanders’ campaign has built a thriving online fundraising operation powered by small donors — he received more than 14,000 separate contributions in Georgia alone — giving him the financial strength to continue deep into the campaign. Patricia Hamill has contributed thousands of dollars to Sanders over the past four years, in increments as small as $2.70.

(Why that number? He often asks for increments of 27, based on his claim that he took an average donation of $27 during his failed 2016 run for the White House.)

Joe Biden speaks at a fundraiser at an Ansley Park mansion. AJC/Greg Bluestein

Hamill, a retired nurse from Columbus, said she’s been giving to Sanders “since the moment I found him.”

“I believe in him. It’s that simple. I’m drawn to the fact that he doesn’t take corporate contributions. I’ve never really caught him in a lie yet. And I believe in Medicaid for All,” said Hamill, who once declared herself an independent but says she will only support Democrats.

“I can’t vote for a Republican,” she said. “It’s going to take a long time to get over this.”

Sanders’ top liberal rival is Warren, who attracted roughly 6,300 donations in Georgia and has made three campaign stops in the state. Clint Deveaux, a retired Atlanta municipal judge, has chipped in more than $500 to her campaign, along with other 2020 hopefuls who have already abandoned their bids.

Deveaux is making up for lost time, after not contributing to campaigns during his 30 years on the bench.

“It’s not a whole lot of money, but now that I’m able to give, I’m doing it,” he said. “I am hurt to the core that Donald Trump is president because I don’t think he understands or cares about his oath of office.”

Warren, he added, has the “breadth of experience” to take on the president.

‘Unvarnished’

Klobuchar’s post New Hampshire move into the top tier may have seemed sudden, but the rapid upswing in her donations in Georgia hinted at the traction she gained in the closing months of 2019.

She raised more than $90,000 between October and December, far outpacing the $26,000 she raised the three months prior. One Georgian who gave during that span was Weyman Johnson, a University of Georgia law school professor in search of a mainstream contender.

“She’s got a lot of potential. There was no epiphany,” he said. “For one thing, she seems to have strength as a candidate. I don’t mean necessarily proven electability at the presidential level yet, but she’s a strong senator with good sense who can unite people.”

Trump’s supporters are brimming with confidence. He attracted more than 9,000 contributions from Georgians, including about $1.5 million for his campaign’s PAC in late 2019. That was thanks to a high-dollar fundraiser he hosted during a campaign swing through Buckhead.

That November fundraiser at the Whitley in Buckhead started with a roundtable that cost supporters $100,000 to attend, followed by a luncheon that ran attendees $2,800 to get in the door — and a donation of at least $35,000 for a photo with the president.

Then there are donors such as Michael Pastaki, an Augusta retiree and military veteran who has strung together about $300 in contributions to Trump over the past few months. He said he’s driven to give by “listening to these Democrats talk.”

“They’re trying to give everyone in the country something for not working. It’s not a great catch line for America,” Pastecki said. “Now we have something good going for us. Something unvarnished.”

Data reporters John Perry and Isaac Sabetai contributed to this article.

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