An “underdog” campaign and more than $3 million in dark money from a Washington-based group lifted former state Rep. Geoff Duncan to a surprising win over 16-year state Sen. David Shafer to secure the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor.
Duncan won by less than 1 percent — about 1,700 votes — according to unofficial results from the Secretary of State’s Office.
Voters turned against Shafer and another longtime politician, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, both of whom were swept up by opposition to perceived insiders.
They lost to candidates who also had experience in politics — Duncan and Secretary of State Brian Kemp — but marketed themselves as outsiders who would shake up state government.
“When everyone counted us out after the primary, you continued to fight for our policy over politics message and helped an underdog come out on top,” Duncan wrote Wednesday in a Facebook message to his supporters.
Shafer did not concede the race Wednesday.
“I am grateful for the support we received in the runoff election yesterday and humbled by the encouragement we received today,” Shafer said in a statement. “We are trying to determine how many provisional ballots were cast.”
State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, a lawyer and Shafer supporter, said there are “thousands of provisional ballots that have been uncounted.” He also said he’d had reports from people who said they had problems voting because their driver’s licenses had recently been renewed.
“In my opinion, there are enough outstanding ballots to put the current result in doubt,” McKoon said.
Duncan’s campaign said it is aware of 29 uncounted provisional ballots and 1,256 outstanding military and overseas ballots.
Shafer congratulated Kemp and state Rep. Brad Raffensperger, who won the Republican runoff for secretary of state, on their “clear victories” and said he would unite behind Republican nominees in November.
Duncan, who served in the state House for five years, held Shafer off in an extremely close race — one that Shafer almost won outright in a three-way May primary with nearly 50 percent of the vote.
Typically, when a candidate is that close to victory in the primary, he or she wins the runoff. That wasn’t the case this time.
Duncan, a Cumming Republican, benefited from ads and mailers paid for by an out-of-state “independent” group, the Washington-based Hometown Freedom Action Network, which received most of its donations from Citizens for a Working America. The organization reported about $3 million in contributions to spend against Shafer.
That’s more than Duncan raised on his own — about $1 million. Shafer reported raising more than $2.8 million with donations from a who’s who of Georgia’s Capitol crowd.
Duncan campaign adviser Chip Lake said while a number of things worked in Duncan’s favor — including a long nine-week runoff — advertising played a large role.
“It’s very hard, if not impossible, to look at any paid advertising and say that it didn’t have an impact,” Lake said. “If you combine all the dollars spent in this race by both campaign committees and independent committees, we were outspent 1.3-to-1 in the runoff. In the primary we were outspent 9-to-1.”
Shafer’s campaign also received help from an outside group, Conservatives for a Stronger Georgia, which put $1.5 million into backing him against Duncan. A big chunk of that money was funneled through Shafer’s state Senate campaign committee to a lobbyist-run PAC, which then gave it to the Conservatives for a Stronger Georgia.
Ads paid for by the Hometown group dubbed the senator “Shady Shafer,” taking aim at his political career, accusing him of tax delinquency and calling him part of a “swamp filled with crooked politicians.”
University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock said: “The dark money was critical. An independent entity can come in on behalf of an underdog and they don’t have to disclose where the money came from, and they can even the scales.”
Duncan’s Democratic opponent in the November general election, Sarah Riggs Amico, said she’ll counter negative campaigning by focusing on issues such as job growth, health care and education.
She said voters are disgusted by the lack of results from Georgia’s Republican majority in the Legislature, including Duncan.
“If these guys were coming to present their results to my boardroom, they’d be fired,” said Amico, a business executive for a transportation company. “Voters will have an opportunity to choose an outsider and a real corporate executive who’s not going to need a decade to prove what I did for the state.”
Duncan ran a campaign branding himself both an underdog and an outsider, often referring to Shafer as “the next in line” to serve as lieutenant governor.
Voters who support President Donald Trump, who endorsed Kemp, might have also supported Duncan and his underdog image, Kennesaw State University political scientist Kerwin Swint said.
“If I were Duncan, I’d want to get as close as I could to Kemp and Trump and benefit from the voter enthusiasm from the base that’s going to turn out for them,” Swint said.
Amico, who is running her first campaign, has also played up her status as an outsider.
Lake said he doesn’t think that will work against Duncan because Amico is “too liberal for a majority of Georgia voters.”
“I don’t think its going to be hard to position her as an outsider who’s out of touch with what the majority of Georgians want,” he said.
—Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.