It also highlights a wealth gap that will test how candidates aim to relate to voters who don’t come from the same economic roots and gauge whether others can leverage their struggles with finances to attract new supporters.
That will play out in the most striking way in the race for governor, a nationally watched contest pitting Democrat Stacey Abrams against Republican Brian Kemp.
Volleys of TV ads focusing on Abrams’ $54,000 debt to the Internal Revenue Service have already lobbed back-and-forth between the two camps, and Kemp’s allies are likely to sharpen the attacks. Her supporters want to paint Kemp, who reported a worth of $5.2 million, as an out-of-touch millionaire.
Down the ballot, too, the finances and fortunes of the candidates will also factor into contests. Two of the candidates have the type of game-changing wealth that could significantly finance their own campaigns.
Sarah Riggs Amico, the Democratic contender for lieutenant governor, has a net worth of roughly $12.4 million thanks to her stake in a trucking and logistics business. And state Rep. Brad Raffensperger, the GOP nominee for secretary of state, has amassed a $26.5 million fortune in the private sector.
But those decisions, too, can leave candidates vulnerable. All are mindful of the perils of pumping vast sums of their own treasure into political races.
Just ask Jim Barksdale, Michael Coles, Guy Millner, Cliff Oxford and Eugene Yu — each who lost bids for higher office in Georgia over the past two decades despite formidable financial firepower.
A towering exception to that recent trend: David Perdue, who spent about $4 million of his own cash to win his 2014 U.S. Senate race with a focus on his background as a Fortune 500 executive.
For some, it won’t be novel. Raffensperger was already targeted in the primary by the runner-up, former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle, for loaning his campaign $1.6 million to finance TV ads and mailers that helped propel his victory.
And Amico could face a similar angle if she digs deep into her pockets to self-finance a campaign against Republican Geoff Duncan. She’s loaned herself roughly $500,000 already, while he’s pumped about $350,000 of his own fortune — valued at $1.7 million — into his nominating contest.
On the campaign trail, she almost dares her critics to try to brand her as an aloof megamillionaire. Talk of her small-town roots and journey from the mailroom to the corporate suite of her family-owned trucking and logistics firm have become staples of her stump speech.
“I’ve spent my career delivering results when others thought it couldn’t be done, solving problems others thought couldn’t be solved,” she said. “As lieutenant governor, I’ll bring that same work ethic to the Gold Dome.”
Ups and downs
The income gap has loomed largest at the top of the ticket.
Abrams, a former state House minority leader, has tried to use her financial struggles to appeal to Georgia voters who have also faced similar problems after she disclosed a net worth of roughly $100,000 that factored in student loan and credit card debt, along with the IRS bill.
She’s said she deferred the federal tax payments in 2015 and 2016 to help pay her family’s medical expenses and that she’s on a payment plan to recoup the debt. But she’s come under fierce attack by Kemp allies who have highlighted the $50,000 loan Abrams made to her campaign even as she owed her tax debt.
The Republican Governors Association launched two ads this month assailing her over those decisions, with one featuring an oversized caricature of her embracing the Gold Dome as the words “fiscally irresponsible” flash on the screen.
And Kemp has questioned whether she violated the law by loaning to her campaign while she carries a tax debt. Of her loan, he said in a pointed statement, “if that’s not criminal, it should be.”
Abrams did not violate any law, and she dismissed the notion that she could have crossed ethical boundaries. At a recent campaign event, she described the focus on her taxes and personal finances as a distraction from policy issues.
“I’m the only candidate in this race who can speak credibly about living in communities where you have to raise children without all the resources you need,” she said. “I know how to manage a budget because I’ve managed to pay all my creditors, make my debts real and do the work I need to do.”
Some Republicans warn that attacking Abrams on her debt comes with great peril. State Sen. Josh McKoon, an unsuccessful candidate for secretary of state, said it risks Republicans appearing disconnected from voters who "already see us as the party of rich people."
“Why play into that stereotype by appearing disconnected from the plight of everyday folks?” he asked.
Others see it as a crucial argument to make to swing voters. Brandon Phillips, the former head of President Donald Trump’s Georgia operation, said he was initially uncomfortable with that argument — until it was sharpened to highlight the debt remained as Abrams loaned her campaign $50,000.
“I wouldn’t call her a deadbeat because she owes a bill. Trump didn’t release his tax returns and defaulted. People mess up,” Phillips said. “But this was a choice. And if she had the means to pay it, but chose not to, it becomes a judgment issue.”
The financial questions can cut both ways for Kemp, whose net worth increased by about two-thirds from 2014. He was assailed in the runoff over his investment in a struggling Kentucky seed-crushing plant. He has a court date this month over a lawsuit brought by an investor who claimed Kemp owes him $500,000 for a loan for the project.
Abrams’ allies are likely to pick up that thread, questioning his business acumen and his personal finances. And Kemp is ready to engage, saying voters will empathize with the ups and downs of his investments. The Republican voters he hopes to energize are, after all, largely supportive of Trump, a billionaire who has struggled with his finances.
In an interview, Kemp recounted how he “struggled like everyone else did,” particularly after the Great Recession. His quarry business struggled to attract customers. Several of his real estate projects tanked. He moved four times in six months when he was building houses.
“We were living day to day,” said Kemp. “Thankfully, we had enough good things to survive. Still, I kid people now that instead of retiring at 55 or 60, I’ll retire at 80.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is covering the issues and candidates up and down the ballot in a busy election year. Look for more at PoliticallyGeorgia.com as the state heads for the general election on Nov. 6.