By giving away campaign funds, Georgia legislative leaders add power

For all the talk of angry voters wanting to sweep incumbents from office, state lawmakers head into the May 24 primary season this year with two very big things working in their favor:

In typical election years no more than four or five incumbents, at most, lose re-election. And incumbent lawmakers ended the General Assembly session last month with more than $12 million banked as the primaries approach, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of campaign disclosures.

Some of the biggest war chests, often built on money from statehouse lobbyists and the people they represent, belong to powerful incumbents who seldom if ever face serious opposition. They, in turn, can legally use the money they’ve raised to help other loyal lawmakers retain their seats in a cycle that only adds to the financial disadvantage many challengers face.

Legislative leaders and unopposed incumbents hold many advantages when they do that. They win another term and they strengthen their bonds with fellow lawmakers through their financial support, making it easier to push their agenda and get votes when they need them on key legislation. It also helps strengthen their hold on leadership positions if they are challenged within their own caucus.

As failed presidential hopeful Jeb Bush showed, money isn’t always everything in politics, particularly in a year when the “outsider” candidates have dominated Republican presidential primaries.

But in legislative races where many incumbents have name identification and a built-in system to be able to outspend challengers 10-1, 20-1 or more, winning is a mountain that few contenders can successfully climb.

“It’s David versus Goliath,” said former Trion Mayor Lanny Thomas, a retired teacher taking on Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, in the primary. “I am out here with a few pebbles and he’s all suited up.”

Thomas, who still teaches part time, reported raising $400 as of March 31. Mullis reported having $103,000 in his campaign account.

“The truth is, when you get in political positions, there are people who want to influence you by giving you money,” said Sam Snider, an Ellijay Republican who lost to House Speaker David Ralston in the 2014 primary. Snider said he was outspent about 30-1.

Snider had help from Atlanta-area tea party activists in 2014. He said he doesn’t have that this year in his follow-up challenge to Ralston.

The speaker reported having $341,000 in his account as of March 31; Snider, $1,412.

Ralston raised seven times that much from one McRae nursing home company alone this month.

Snider is convinced he’s got a shot, particularly in a year when Republican voters say they are looking for change.

State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, who is running unopposed for another term and contributed $2,500 to Ralston on April 16, isn’t so sure. He said voters may be angry at the federal government or Congress because “they don’t get anything done.”

“We get things done in Georgia,” Miller said.

Kennesaw State University political scientist Kerwin Swint, a former campaign strategist, sees little hope for underfunded challengers.

“You would say in almost every circumstance like this, the challenger has no chance,” Swint said. “It’s not going to happen for them unless lightning strikes.”

Circumstances sometimes intervene

The majority party typically draws political voting boundaries every decade to ensure that voters in most districts elect candidates from their party. Democrats did it for decades, and Republicans have been no different since taking full control of the General Assembly in 2005. Districts are drawn to elect a Republican or a Democrat. So the party primaries — which take place in a month — are where the action usually is.

Legislative leaders sometimes try to insulate their majority by passing legislation that they think will play to their base. In past years, that might include a big tax cut. This year, “religious liberty” and “campus carry” legislation were seen as red-meat issues for the Republican base.

Still, in every election cycle a few incumbents get beat. A dynamic challenger has enough money to get his or her message out. A plucky candidate outworks an incumbent or the incumbent has slipped up on a local issue. In some cases, the makeup of a district has changed as people move in and out.

Sometimes a single issue can cause problems. Some challengers are running against incumbents this year, for instance, on their vote last year to raise fuel and hotel taxes to pay for transportation construction projects. Supporters of the vote are spending money trying to keep those same incumbents safe.

Other times there are unusual circumstances.

State Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, a longtime chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee, was ousted in 2014 despite having $675,000 available to spend. Balfour lost the primary a few months after standing trial on charges that he claimed reimbursements from taxpayers for expenses he didn’t incur. Balfour was acquitted of the fraud charges, but the political damage was done.

During the same primary, business leaders, including the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, targeted state Reps. Sam Moore of Ball Ground and Charles Gregory of Kennesaw, who had tea party support but were seen as not being sufficiently pro-business. They both lost their primaries.

While about two-dozen lawmakers started April with more than $100,000 in their campaign accounts, there are a few races most years where challengers are financially competitive.

For example, state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, is facing a stiff challenge from Milton investor Aaron Barlow, who had reported loaning his campaign about $150,000 as of last week.

Re-gifting gets mixed reviews

Beach has kept pace, in large part by raising money from special-interest groups, businesses with interest in state contracts, and fellow lawmakers.

Since the session ended a month ago, he has received about $15,000 from state senators, House members and the Senate Republican political committee.

Such money isn’t that hard to come by for lawmakers in need because so many incumbents with big war chests face no opposition. One Beach donor, Senate President Pro Tem David Shafer, R-Duluth, ended March with $1.2 million in his campaign account and has no opposition for re-election. Another donor, Miller, reported $355,000 in his account.

In an interview with the AJC, Miller said it only makes sense for legislators to want to help candidates who think like they do and will vote like they will.

Not all legislators and former lawmakers think it’s a good idea.

Longtime state Sen. George Hooks, a former budget chairman, usually had one of the largest campaign war chests in the Senate among Democrats. But he gave little away to other candidates.

“I just felt like if people gave me money, they gave it to me, they didn’t intend for me to spread it around to candidates they may or may not support,” he said. “If I wanted to give a campaign contribution, I gave it out of my own pocket.”

Before he left office in 2013, Hooks donated more than $250,000 in leftover contributions to historic nonprofits.

Good-government groups such as Common Cause have long opposed the re-gifting of contributions.

Bill Bozarth, the former head of Common Cause Georgia, saw plenty of that in his House race in 2014, but he doesn’t think it necessarily played a major factor in his defeat. Bozarth ran as an independent and was badly outspent in the race even without the contributions his Republican opponent received from House members.

Still, he said, the money shift is bad for the political system.

“The candidate that receives the money from the (legislative) leaders has some implied obligation to support them, and it takes away their independence as a legislator,” Bozarth said. “When people see that, they develop an even greater skepticism about how government works.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.