Special interests poured last-minute money into Georgia’s May primary


Business groups, labor unions and other organizations spent more than $660,000 in the final weeks of the May 24 primary campaign.

Top spenders

Georgia Coalition for Job Creation: $267,171.06

National Association of Realtors Fund: $114,584.18

American Federation for Children Action Fund-Georgia: $86,604.28

Cobb First: $49,992.06

Troutman Sanders LLP Georgia PAC: $36,050

Top beneficiaries:

State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta: $97,917.88

Kerstin Liberty: $37,409.66

Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee: $26,660.25

State Rep. Greg Morris, R-Vidalia: $22,191.68

State Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega: $22,014.71

Special-interest groups in Georgia spent more than $600,000 in the final month before the state’s May 24 primary election, with most of the money going to protect vulnerable Republican incumbents, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of campaign records found.

The largess came in between regular campaign filings with the state ethics commission, making it more difficult for the public to track. From big-business groups to liberal-leaning labor unions, most of the money is not subject to limits imposed on individual campaigns and went largely to direct mail, robocalls, and television and radio advertising.

Steve Anthony, a retired Georgia State University political science instructor, said such last-minute campaign spending by outside groups has become common in state politics.

“There’s going to be a period of time when money is going to be spent that is so late the other side doesn’t have time to respond,” said Anthony, a former top aide to Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy. “If you’re running against an incumbent who is good friends with Georgia Power …. you know Georgia Power is going to go to bat for that person.”

State law allows so-called independent committees to raise and spend unlimited funds to influence the outcome of an election as long as the expenditures are not direct contributions to candidates. While called “independent,” they can pay for advertising, get-out-the-vote campaigns and other efforts to help candidates.

Political action committees, meanwhile, typically give directly to candidates and are subject to a limit of $2,600 per election for legislative races.

The largest single beneficiary of the "independent" group spending was state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, who faced a competitive primary challenge from investor Aaron Barlow of Milton. Business groups backing Beach in part because of his support for a transportation tax hike last year and for MARTA expansion this year, spent heavily on his race.

The second-biggest beneficiary was a Republican challenger, Kerstin Liberty, who ran unsuccessfully to topple House Regulated Industries Chairman Howard Maxwell, R-Dallas.

The American Federation for Children spent more than $86,000 supporting a variety of candidates, including Republican and Democratic incumbents. But the group, which advocates for school choice, was a major backer of Liberty’s bid to unseat Maxwell in Paulding County.

Maxwell defeated Liberty 53 percent to 47 percent, despite the fact the group spent more than $30,000 on ads to support Liberty.

Liberty said that the Washington-based group found her on its own. School choice and education were major themes of her campaign, Liberty said, and she was proud to have the organization’s support.

“It was a testament to the fact that they had confidence in my campaign,” she said. “I don’t know their history with my opponent, but it must not have been a very positive thing.”

The American Federation for Children’s spending helped get her message out to voters, she said. It’s something she hopes made an impression because she intends to run again for the seat in two years.

Maxwell was not left out in the cold. The veteran lawmaker benefited from more than $16,000 in independent expenditures from the political action committee of the Troutman Sanders law firm and from the Georgia Coalition for Job Creation, a committee funded by titans of industry, including Georgia Power and AT&T.

The coalition was the biggest independent spender in the weeks before the primary, laying out more than $250,000 on advertising, direct mail and robocalls to influence voters in a dozen campaigns.

The AJC reported May 23 that the coalition and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce spent big to protect House and Senate leaders and to try to defeat state Rep. Scot Turner, R-Holly Hill, who voted against gas and hotel tax increases. Most leaders won without runoffs, while Turner easily bested the challenger the coalition backed to oust him.

“The Georgia Coalition for Job Creation backs candidates who will fight for policies that grow our economy,” coalition spokesman Brian Robinson said in a statement. “Doing the hard work needed for Georgia’s long-term prosperity takes leadership and vision, and the coalition looks to help candidates who possess those qualities.”

The National Association of Realtors was particularly busy before the primary. Its national political action committee spent more than $100,000 in early May on direct mail, robocalls, consultants and polling. According to its filings with the state ethics commission, the expenditures were in support of more than a dozen incumbent lawmakers, including at least two Democrats.

Ryan Brashear, the president of the Georgia Realtors Association, said the money helped the state group boost candidates “that have worked to protect private property rights and free enterprise in Georgia.”

“Our engagement was not issue-specific nor party-specific,” Brashear said. “Georgia Realtors are fortunate to have the resources to engage in the political process, and we look forward to continuing our work with the Legislature to make Georgia the best state to live and conduct business.”

While a majority of the money spent in the run-up to the primary was spent in Republican contests, groups typically aligned with Democrats who were active as well. A committee called the Progressive Employment Legislation PAC spent more than $13,000 on legislative races, and it gave Michael Thurmond a $1,000 boost in his bid to become DeKalb County’s new CEO.

Steve Lomax, the PAC’s organizer and president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1996, did not return messages seeking comment.