Legislative training session a launchpad for Georgia candidates

Georgia’s state lawmakers gathered in Athens for three days this week to painstakingly prepare for the upcoming session. But some of them were also laying the groundwork for the next campaign, just a month after ending the last one, scrambling to line up support from the lobbyists who could fuel their move up the political ladder.

With the 6th Congressional District seat up for grabs since President-elect Donald Trump picked U.S. Rep. Tom Price to be part of his administration, and an Atlanta mayor’s race and a governor’s race slated for the next few years, it all made for some delightfully awkward scenarios.

Two Atlanta mayoral candidates seemed to stare each other down from across a crowded hall. Contenders for statewide office, from governor on down, met with backers in secluded conference rooms and late-night Athens hot spots.

The most heated rivalries, though, centered on the race to replace Price, and legislators seeking to replace the Roswell Republican stood talking to potential donors just paces from each other.

Trump’s election last month created wide-open races across the board, and ambitious politicians looking to climb to higher office tried to take advantage of the uncertainty. Suddenly, a gaggle of Georgia Republican congressmen who once seemed certain to seek other offices are staying put. And state lawmakers are looking for promotions.

“It’s amazing to me what a difference a couple of weeks make, because I promise you not one of them were even thinking about running if Hillary Clinton had won,” said Jay Morgan, an influential lobbyist who once headed the Georgia GOP. “Now they see what a guy like Tom Price has done.”

For lawmakers on the political make, the pre-session training that ended Tuesday was a target-rich environment.

There were more lobbyists than lawmakers, as there are at most political events. After all, lobbyists will need the help of the legislators they were talking up during the three-day biennial over the next three months. And lawmakers could hardly move at times without bumping into a political contributor.

‘Due diligence’

The domino effect is already shaking out. Price’s pending appointment as Trump’s health secretary left open one of the juiciest prizes in Georgia: his solidly conservative, affluent and establishment-friendly suburban Atlanta district. The victor could likely stay safely in the U.S. House for years — or use the seat as a launching pad for higher office.

The race for the seat is well underway. State Sen. Judson Hill has already announced his bid — he vows to be the "conservative reformer" in the race — and has been working the phones tying down donors while scurrying in and out of meetings on Monday.

House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, the highest-ranking Republican woman in Georgia, stood outside an Athens conference room surrounded by a knot of allies just a few feet from state Rep. Chuck Martin, a fellow north Fulton lawmaker also eyeing the race. State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, another potential candidate, was seldom lonely in Athens either.

“I’m happy being in the state Senate, but I’m looking at it,” said Beach, who heads the North Fulton Chamber of Commerce. “I’m evaluating it and talking to supporters — I’m doing the due diligence.”

Jones late Tuesday told the House GOP caucus she was no longer in the running and would remain as the No. 2 in the state House.

“I am more invigorated than ever to answer the urgent call to make things better and create even brighter possibilities for my fellow Georgians,” she said in the letter.

Backers of state Rep. Betty Price, Tom Price’s wife, spread word that she had received a supportive call from U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan. And friends of former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel and ex-state Sen. Dan Moody, who were not in Athens, tried to scare competitors out of the race.

Democrats, meanwhile, continued to search for a candidate for the district, which stretches from east Cobb to Brookhaven.

Attorney Joshua McLaurin announced Tuesday on Facebook that he would run, but state and local Democrats said they had never heard of him. State Rep. Scott Holcomb, a DeKalb County Democrat seen as the party's strongest candidate in a long-shot race, said he was not budging.

“I appreciate the encouragement,” Holcomb said, “but I’m happy where I am.”

A huge expense

It is an understatement to say the people the candidates were talking to this week could play a role in paying for their congressional campaigns.

Three of the lawmakers looking at the Price seat — Beach, Hill, and Martin — have collected about $1.3 million in contributions for their state legislative campaigns since the beginning of 2012, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of disclosures.

Of that total, about $1 million has come from lobbyists, statehouse special interests, fellow lawmakers, people who run political accounts and state contractors: just the kind of people who showed up for the biennial.

About 94 percent of the contributions over $100 that Martin has raised since the beginning of 2012 have come from those interests. For Beach, the percentage is 76 percent.

Which helps explain all the hushed conversations around Athens this week. Even state Sen. Josh McKoon, a Handel supporter and one of the loudest voices in the statehouse on ethics, said it goes with the territory.

“There’s no question that anybody trying to run for this kind of office — because of the sheer expense of buying television in the Atlanta media market — has to raise millions of dollars,” said McKoon, a Columbus Republican. “And the people who they look to in order to raise that money inevitably have business at the Legislature.”