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In the first two months after November's election, the top statehouse fundraiser in Georgia was the one politician who can't legally run for another term.
Gov. Nathan Deal, who handily won re-election Nov. 4, repeatedly called last year’s campaign his electoral farewell.
Still, his campaign reported taking in almost $200,000 in November and December for the 2018 election cycle, even though he can’t run for re-election in 2018.
The money will go toward paying off left-over campaign expenses, and Deal staffers said the governor’s account will be shut down when all the bills are paid, probably by mid-year.
But that doesn’t mean he’ll be out of the fundraising business, or abandon the influence that campaign money can buy.
It just won’t be done through his campaign fund, which is subject to limits on how much donors can contribute.
His team will likely use an existing political action committee allied with the governor or create a new fund to collect big checks from the same people who financed his campaign, such as lobby groups and businesses with interest in legislation and state spending. That fund may have no contribution limits.
Brian Robinson, the governor’s spokesman, said a final decision about the type of fund hasn’t been made.
“We still have expenses we would have to cover for our political operation,” Robinson said. “Obviously we want to be able to support Republican candidates in the General Assembly and play a role in promoting conservative policies in Georgia. We will continue fund-raising, it just won’t be through Deal for Governor.”
Last fall, Deal promised to help Republican lawmakers in their future campaigns if they contributed to his re-election, and they anted up a big way. So at least some of what the new fund raises may go toward paying back those who helped him.
Some may also go to pay Denise Deal, his daughter-in-law and chief fundraiser. Last month, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the governor's campaign paid his daughter-in-law's company more than $1.5 million for fund-raising during Deal's re-election.
Tom Bordeaux, a Savannah alderman and former Democratic state lawmaker who served with Deal in the early 1990s, said it’s not surprising that fundraising on the governor’s behalf will continue through the end of his term.
“Money and contributions are power,” Bordeaux said. “Politicians like to use power, and money is access to that power. Whether it’s under the term ‘re-election campaign fund’ or ‘PAC,’ it is designed to further your power. And if the politician is somebody you trust and believe in, you want him to have more power.”
Much of the money Deal’s campaign raised right after the election came from institutional donors — lobbying groups, trade associations, state contractors, friends of whomever is in power — who gave a little extra to a runoff fund in case the governor didn’t get a majority of votes in the election. If he hadn’t gotten a majority, he would have faced a runoff with Democratic nominee Jason Carter. Since Deal won without a runoff, his campaign sent notes to those donors asking if they could keep the donations and “re-purpose” them. Otherwise state law required the money to be returned.
Several lobbying firms or lobbyists, who need to stay on the right side of whomever is in charge, were among those who agreed to let the campaign keep the money.
For instance, the law firm of McKenna Long & Aldridge, which has a major lobbying presence at the Capitol, contributed $1,400 to Deal for the runoff that never took place. The firm agreed to let Deal's campaign keep it.
Eric Tanenblatt, senior managing partner of McKenna Long & Aldridge and a top Republican fund-raiser, said campaigns have “wind-down” expenses, such as bills that come in after elections. In addition, he said, “You can give it to other candidates, you can contribute to the state party. I trust they will use the money wisely and we are supportive of the governor.”
Pete Robinson, chairman of Troutman Sanders Strategies, one of the top statehouse lobbying firms, served with Deal in the state Senate and helped raise money for his campaign. He gave $2,800 for the runoff and agreed to let the campaign “re-purpose” the money after the governor won the general election.
“I have a lot of faith in what they want to do (with the money),” he said. “I don’t know what it is.”
When Gov. Zell Miller won a second term in 1994, staffers said they disbanded his campaign fund-raising operations.
But Deal’s predecessor, Gov. Sonny Perdue, continued to flex some fund-raising muscle after he no longer needed the money for re-election.
Perdue had a big campaign war chest after winning re-election in 2006. So he created Perdue PAC and funneled in $787,000 in leftover campaign contributions.
The week before the General Assembly session started in 2008, his PAC raised more than $200,000, much of it from the same lobbyists and special interests who typically fund campaigns of incumbent lawmakers, such as road builders, trial lawyers, nursing homes and health insurers.
John Watson, chairman of Perdue PAC, said the governor had a sometimes contentious relationship with lawmakers and it was felt he needed some political funds to fight his battles. However, the biggest contributions the PAC wound up making went to the state Republican Party in the fall of 2010, when Deal was beating back Perdue's old Democratic rival, former Gov. Roy Barnes.
After Deal won the election, his business partners, friends and supporters started Real PAC to sell the governor and the Republican Party's "brand" heading into the 2014 elections. The fund, which is now dormant, raised nearly $1 million.
How Deal backers used Real PAC shows the difference between a candidate’s campaign fund and a political action committee.
The Deal campaign could collect from each contributor a maximum of $6,300 each for the primary and general election, and $3,700 more for any runoff.
Donors can give whatever they want to PACs. So, UnitedHealthcare, which helps manage the $3 billion state health insurance plan for teachers, state employees and retirees, contributed $50,000 to Real PAC. The nursing home lobby gave $50,000, and a major nursing home company donated $100,000. WellCare of Georgia, which, like nursing homes, received more than $1 billion state payments last year, contributed $50,000.
Whether the Deal camp resurrects Real PAC or starts a new fund, the governor will mostly only be lending his name to the effort. His staff said he's never liked fund raising and has pretty much had enough of it after running campaigns for more than 30 years. So the fund raising will likely be left up to the team headed by his daughter-in-law, Denise.
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Credit: Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution