The election is nearly three months away, but you’ve already heard the pitch from Republicans: Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor, is a radical liberal bankrolled by lefty fat cats from California and New York.
It's true that liberal megadonor George Soros of New York has already pumped about $1.5 million into Abrams' campaign, a political action committee supporting her and the Georgia Democratic Party. National labor unions have also dug deep into their coffers for the former state House minority leader, and so has some big money from the Left Coast.
But Republicans are spending plenty of outside money, too. Some of the first attack ads aimed at Abrams after Secretary of State Brian Kemp won last month’s GOP runoff came from the Republican Governors Association, a Washington group that poured more than $9 million into the past two Georgia races for governor.
Outside money will surely play an outsized role in this year’s contest, but Abrams’ campaign is adding a twist: thousands of small donations from folks like a high school English teacher from northern Virginia, an Ohio peer counselor, a department store manager from Seattle and a U.S. Navy officer from San Diego.
The size of that small-dollar army points to a successful grass-roots campaign at the national level that has seldom if ever been seen before in Georgia, coming from a candidate who is hoping to become the nation’s first female African-American governor. It’s so vast, the campaign likes to boast, it overwhelmed the state’s financial disclosure system in early July.
The money is coming from people like Betsy McCann, who works in human resources in Chicago and discovered Abrams through what's becoming the typical way: a post on social media from one of her friends. She was soon hooked, partly by the historic nature of Abrams' campaign and partly by her struggle with debt, driven in part, the candidate says, by the need to help pay her parents' medical bills.
“What cemented it with me was when she started talking about the debt she had to take on to care for her family. That is something everybody talks about,” said McCann, who gave $10 to the campaign. “There is also something tremendously powerful about having a black woman governor for the first time in this country.”
Abrams’ fundraising hasn’t been hurt by the fact that she’s become the darling of the national media and appeared on the late-night TV circuit selling her campaign. But her aides have also done an extraordinary amount of social media and email outreach.
Her vast list of potential donors has received multiple emails a week reacting to the news of the day and asking for small increments, sometimes as little as $3. A Kemp attack or an endorsement from President Barack Obama? Fresh reason to send out another request for cash. Some donors are even on payment plans for $5 every few weeks.
“Her whole life has been grass roots,” said Kristin Oblander, who still holds the Georgia gubernatorial race record by raising $22 million for Gov. Roy Barnes’ unsuccessful re-election campaign in 2002. “She’s a complete and total rock star. When you push the button on the email, you are going to get a lot of contributions.”
That fundraising prowess can backfire. Look no further than last year's U.S. House race between Jon Ossoff and Karen Handel, the most expensive election of its kind. Ossoff raised a whopping $30 million — and it opened the door for Republicans to paint him as a puppet of San Francisco liberals.
Rob Simms, who advised Handel in that campaign, said Abrams’ fundraising is a natural extension of the Bernie Sanders strategy of raising heaps of cash through small donations from liberal supporters. Left-leaning outrage over President Donald Trump’s policies only helps fan the flames.
“What you are seeing all over the country is that candidates that fit into that space, and Abrams certainly does, are able to tap into that energy, and it’s happening everywhere,” said Simms, a former head of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
“I think it feeds the narrative,” Simms said, referring to the outside donations. “And the reality is ideologically, she is grossly out of touch with the majority of Georgia voters. What having all this outside money does is it reinforces that.”
Abrams’ backers note that Washington PACs, such as the Republican Governors Association, often pour outside money into Georgia to pay for ads attacking a Democratic candidate for receiving out-of-state donations. Democratic committees will likewise spend millions of dollars in out-of-state donations to target Kemp.
It’s a sore spot for some voters.
“The out-of-state money bothers me,” said Don Lowery, a 53-year-old database administrator from Marietta who describes himself as a passionate Republican supporter. “Out-of-state interests are not in line with Georgia interests. And people in the state should drive the election.
“Imagine a candidate winning in Georgia that gets a lot of money from Florida and during the drought opens up the dams. That’s extreme, but that’s an example.”
Abrams’ campaign says it has received 39,000 donations from Georgians, more than 31,000 of which were for under $100. The names of donors who give less than $100 to a campaign are not required to be reported in filings unless they give more than one donation and the total adds up to $100.
Those non-itemized donations of less than $100 accounted for about $1.3 million of the $6 million she had raised through the end of June, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis. That’s about 10 times what Kemp raised from similar donors and almost 16 times what Gov. Nathan Deal took in during his re-election campaign over the same time period.
Abrams received hundreds of thousands of dollars more from donors who chipped in more than $100 through small increments of $5 or $10 or $20. Of those itemized contributions, Abrams received more than 3,200 donations from Georgians and about 2,600 from outside the state.
Among the itemized contributions — large and small — she has raised more from supporters in California, New York and Washington combined than she’s collected from Georgia donors. That doesn’t include the $1.3 million in contributions that were not itemized and therefore the campaign didn’t report names and addresses.
Still, some of her out-of-state donors say where they live shouldn’t matter.
“Is Brian Kemp going to say Donald Trump can’t campaign for him because he’s a New Yorker? No way,” said Todd Drezner of Brooklyn, who gave three $20 contributions from April through May. “She obviously served in the House in Georgia and won her primary by a big margin. It’s not like she just showed up in Georgia.”
Drezner got interested in Abrams’ campaign through her social media accounts and her frequent mentions in the left-leaning Pod Save America podcast. The frequent fundraising pleas he received once he donated to her campaign helped reel in other checks.
“It’s a campaign with a lot of historical possibility,” he said. “I certainly support her policies over a generic Republican — and very much over Brian Kemp. I’m trying to do whatever I can to help her campaign, since every little bit counts.”
That same sentiment compelled Glenda Dugan, a retiree from Walnut Creek, Calif., to donate $65 to Abrams during the three months leading up to June 30.
“Obama started it,” she exclaimed, when asked about the small-dollar donations. “I just think it’s time we had more women in office. And although I’m not black, I think we need more black women representing other black women.”
Roberta Grossman, a Los Angeles filmmaker, sprinkled Abrams with seven donations over the span of about two months. The amounts were laden with symbolism: either $18 or $20.18, in honor of the midterm cycle.
“I’ve been following her and listening to her speak and reading about her,” Grossman said. “I think she is very smart, down to earth and a ray of light in an otherwise cloudy time.”
Focus on the outside
While Abrams has received far more small donations — inside Georgia and out — than Kemp, she’s also drawing big money from places such as California and New York. A review of campaign records shows she received 103 contributions of $6,000 or more from out-of-state donors as of June 30. Kemp had received just five.
That will change now that Kemp has attracted national attention with his runoff victory. Still, Republicans wasted no time after the runoff to begin painting Abrams as a better candidate for governor of California than Georgia.
“Stacey Abrams is funded by out-of-state, radical activists who want to turn Georgia into a lawless, losing state like California,” said Ryan Mahoney, Kemp’s spokesman. “She’s propped up by (Hillary) Clinton, (Nancy) Pelosi, and Soros. Her loyalty is to the extreme left and their destructive ideology.”
Abrams has responded by embracing the national attention while still emphasizing her homegrown roots. Asked at a recent event how she planned to counter that line of attack, she talked about her local ties.
“I’m Mississippi-raised and Georgia-grown,” she said. “I’m a daughter of the Deep South who has started small businesses and has done a pretty good job with helping grow the economy in a small way. I’m a Democratic leader who has worked across the aisle. And I believe that if you look at any objective metric, I’m the most qualified candidate for governor.”
Simms, the veteran GOP strategist, expects more intense scrutiny on who is bankrolling Abrams’ campaign as November nears. Even if half or more of her donations are coming from Georgia, Republicans will focus on the portion that’s not.
“The narrative is going to be that she’s the darling of The New York Times and Hollywood actors and producers,” Simms said, “and I don’t think that is going to sell well at all in Georgia.”
Audience specialist Isaac Sabetai contributed to this article.
It's a busy election year, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is keeping the spotlight on the leading candidates for governor, Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. AJC stories have included a look at Kemp's fundraising among industries he regulates and Abrams' tax difficulties. Look for more at PoliticallyGeorgia.com as the state heads for the general election on Nov. 6.