Georgia hopefuls build early fundraising leads — sometimes with their own cash

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler speaks during a Georgia Municipal Association breakfast on Jan. 27. She has already given her campaign $5 million and has pledged to spend $20 million or more in hopes of retaining her seat. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler speaks during a Georgia Municipal Association breakfast on Jan. 27. She has already given her campaign $5 million and has pledged to spend $20 million or more in hopes of retaining her seat. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

The fundraising competition in Georgia’s dual U.S. Senate races and two hard-fought U.S. House contests is being fueled in part by candidates willing to bet on themselves by seeding their campaigns with personal funds.

Leading the pack is U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who made good on her promise to dip into her piggy bank to jump-start her campaign. The Republican incumbent pumped $5 million of her own cash into her campaign and ended 2019 with about $5.4 million in the bank.

Overall, Loeffler has pledged to spend at least $20 million to defend the seat she was appointed to last month.

Candidates using their own money to launch campaigns is nothing new in American politics, Georgia State University political science professor Amy Steigerwalt said, although the prevalence has become more noticeable as political parties take on less of the responsibility for funding campaigns.

Billionaires Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer have given their campaigns a combined total of $400 million to fuel their bids for the Democratic presidential nomination, according to Federal Election Commission data.

But even in smaller races, such as the U.S. Senate and House contests in Georgia, candidates are willing to spend their own money as a sign to potential donors that they are in it to win.

“The difference is Bloomberg is doing this at such large amounts,” Steigerwalt said. “Loeffler said, ‘I will put in this money. This shows you how serious I am.’”

Loeffler’s two main opponents — Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Collins — haven’t had to file disclosures yet because they entered the race in late January.

Another contender, Democrat Matt Lieberman, raised more than $700,000 and has about $370,000 in his war chest.

Loeffler's counterpart in the U.S. Senate, David Perdue, cemented his status as Georgia's top fundraising candidate in 2019, collecting nearly $2 million in the final three months of the year.

The former Fortune 500 chief executive kicks off the year with about $7.8 million on hand as he races for a second term, and thus far he has not invested any of his own money.

Ben Fry, Perdue’s campaign manager, said the numbers show that the senator’s message resonates with voters.

“Georgians are proud of Sen. Perdue’s record as a bipartisan leader and political outsider who gets results for our families,” Fry said. “Their early investment in his campaign shows they are not taking this election for granted and they are grateful that Sen. Perdue is leading the way to grow our economy and keep Americans safe.”

Perdue’s chief Democratic fundraising rival is Jon Ossoff, a former 6th Congressional District candidate who raised about $1 million over the past three months and has $1.5 million in his campaign coffers.

The other two high-profile Democrats lagged behind. Teresa Tomlinson collected about $530,000 over the three-month period and has $320,000 on hand. Sarah Riggs Amico, who ran for lieutenant governor two years ago, raised $140,000 and pumped an additional $365,000 into her campaign. She’s got nearly $500,000 in her account.

Amico stepped down as executive chairwoman of her family's trucking firm last month to devote herself full time to her Senate race. She said she looks at the money she loaned, which is $765,000 to date, as seed capital needed to hire the staff and build the campaign structure she believes it will take to win.

“I look at it as being very consistent about putting my money where my mouth is,” Amico said.

When it comes to the two suburban Atlanta U.S. House seats drawing the most attention, Democratic candidates lead their GOP counterparts in fundraising.

U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath ended the year with the heftiest Democratic campaign bank account in Georgia. She took in nearly $1 million in the fourth quarter and ended the year with about $2 million in her coffers despite a pledge not to accept any donations from corporate political committees.

In January, her campaign announced that McBath had surpassed 80,000 individual small-dollar donors. Her end-of-2019 haul surpassed Republican rival and former U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, who raised $300,000 over the same period and has about $830,000 in cash on hand.

In the open race for Georgia’s 7th District, Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux reported about $860,000 in the bank, the most on hand of all candidates racing to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall.

Three of her chief Republican rivals — Lynne Homrich, Rich McCormick and state Sen. Renee Unterman — all have loaned their campaigns cash.

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