GOP lawmakers respond to governor’s call for campaign help

How we got the story

Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters have been following the campaign money trail from the start. For this story, the AJC downloaded campaign reports due Tuesday from Gov. Nathan Deal and Democratic challenger Jason Carter and sorted through more than 8,000 individual contributions to find donations from lawmakers and their campaign accounts. The AJC cross-referenced most of those contributions with donations lawmakers reported when they filed their own campaign reports.

Ongoing campaign coverage

In Georgia, contests for the governor’s office and an open U.S. Senate seat top this year’s ballot, but The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s coverage doesn’t stop there.

Facing a tough challenge in his final campaign, Gov. Nathan Deal promised Republican state lawmakers he would return the favor if they helped him win re-election by donating to his campaign.

Campaign records show they came through in a big way.

GOP lawmakers reported donating about $550,000 to Deal’s campaign over the past three months, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis found, much of it after the governor privately urged legislators to help him beat back Democratic nominee Jason Carter. That amounted to more than 10 percent of the $5 million Deal has raised since July 1.

In contrast, Carter, an Atlanta state senator, collected only about $35,000 from Democratic lawmakers and their businesses, a small slice of the $3 million he raised during the most recent quarter.

The Republican lawmakers’ ability to tap big-money statehouse interests for contributions and, in return, donate to Deal is providing a major boost to the governor’s re-election efforts heading into the final month of the campaign.

GOP lawmakers said it was the least they could do for Deal, who legally can’t run for a third term.

“He’s proven he’s been there for our folks, he’s always come to our fundraisers,” said House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn. “It was time to turn around and return the favor. Everybody kind of woke up and said, ‘the election is only a few months away’ and sat down and wrote a check.”

With polls showing a tight race, Deal spoke to House Republicans in late August in Macon and asked for their financial help. A few days later, a campaign staffer wrote a follow-up memo to House members in which he said, “As the governor said, we plan to spend the next four years returning the favor for those that have been supportive of us.”

The governor’s staff and some lawmakers said Deal was talking about helping them in future campaigns, not offering jobs, state funding for their districts or help with legislation if re-elected.

Top lawmakers typically get a vast majority of their campaign money from Capitol lobbyists and statehouse special interests, reviews of campaign records show. Since leading legislators seldom face serious challenges, they are free to pass much of the money on to party candidates fighting for another term, such as Deal.

Chris Riley, Deal’s longtime chief of staff who is now working for his re-election campaign, said the governor’s pitch left a strong imprint on lawmakers. The campaign called on veteran lawmakers, including Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston, to play up the difficulties of working with a Democratic governor if Carter wins.

“We wanted to paint the picture because a lot of the members of our caucus have served in an era where they’re in the majority,” Riley said. “They don’t know what it’s like trying to work with a Democrat on the second floor.”

State Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, said the governor’s pleas hit home. Jones and his campaign donated a combined $8,200 worth of meals and supplies to Deal’s campaign.

“It’s important to me because the governor has been good for Georgia,” Jones said. “He’s done good work for the state, and I want to see what he’ll do in another four years.”

State Rep. Matt Hatchett, a Republican from Dublin and the master of ceremonies for the House caucus event, came up with $6,300 for the Deal campaign.

“I believe in the governor and I believe we need him back,” Hatchett said. “And it takes money to get him there. The governor met with us, and he pledged that if we helped him, he would come to our campaigns in two years and four years. And I respect him for doing that.”

About 50 Republican lawmakers contributed the $6,300 general election limit for individuals, businesses or political funds.

Senate Democratic Whip Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said he wasn’t surprised by Deal’s success since the governor had promised to help Republican lawmakers in return.

“His appeal to them was a mixture of coercion and promises, and it obviously had an impact,” Fort said. “He made it clear that if you pony up, I’ll help you. The flip side is, if you don’t pony up, he may not help you in the future. I think it’s corrupt.”

The governor said he was pleased that lawmakers answered his challenge.

“They have not only been good partners, but they have supported me all the way,” Deal said. “And certainly they have stepped up in helping raise the revenue that I need for the campaign. “

Disclosures released in July showed Deal’s campaign being outraised in previous months by Carter’s. Deal’s campaign said that was partly due to the governor having a busy work schedule in the months after the 2014 legislative session. He has made fundraising a top priority ever since, and it has shown with a huge financial advantage over Carter since July.

The fundraising may yet intensify. With most polls showing Deal and Carter hovering below the 50-percent mark, the possibility of a December runoff is looming. Deal has collected more than $110,000 in contributions for that potential contest, while Carter has roughly $4,000

Republican lawmakers were also a major source of campaign cash for Gov. Sonny Perdue in 2006 when he was running for re-election. Legislators funneled more than $2 million to the state GOP for TV ads backing the governor.

Deal began tapping lawmakers for help in July, when, in a conference call with more than 50 GOP legislators, the governor urged them to “step up” by donating to his campaign and pointing supporters to upcoming fundraisers.

As in 2006, Republican legislators are also giving to the party. The state GOP reported receiving more than $450,000 from lawmakers over the past three months, most of it from the House Republican caucus.