Spending on Georgia’s U.S. Senate race smashed records in 2014

Big spenders

How much was spent on the Georgia U.S. Senate race? Figures include primary and GOP primary runoff campaigns.

Democrat Michelle Nunn: $16.04 million

Republican David Perdue: $13.76 million

Other candidates: $15.94 million

Left-leaning outside groups: $5.42 million

Right-leaning outside groups: $23.27 million

Grand total: $74.43 million

Source: An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of Federal Election Commission data

A look back

The race for an open U.S. Senate seat was one of the biggest political stories in Georgia in 2014. A big part of that story was the fundraising, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution devoted much of its coverage of the campaign on where that money came from and how it was spent.

Candidates and outside groups spent more than $74 million on the nearly two-year derby to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, according to final tallies from the Federal Election Commission.

The Democratic and Republican state parties combined to spend an additional $12.7 million over the election cycle, much of it funneled in from the national parties to coordinated campaigns for all of each side’s candidates.

The results were a record-smashing year for spending and the election of Republican David Perdue, who will be sworn in Tuesday as the state’s junior senator.

There were many unusual factors in play, including a knock-down, drag-out Republican primary for the open seat, and Democrat Michelle Nunn’s big name and national connections. But close observers of Georgia’s shifting politics say this year’s flood of spending represents a new normal for a state that could move into swing territory in the coming years.

“What we saw in Georgia is what is becoming very commonplace in Senate contests around the country,” said Joel McElhannon, an Athens-based consultant who worked with the Georgia Republican Party.

“High-stakes Senate contests are generating this kind of money,” McElhannon said. “It’s the new reality of campaigns in America after the Citizens United decision (by the U.S. Supreme Court) that you’re going to have enormous outside spending, particularly when you have something as important as control of the U.S. Senate at stake.”

Nationwide, Georgia's U.S. Senate race was the fifth-most-expensive – according to tallies by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics – with North Carolina leading the pack at $118 million.

But Georgia turned out not to be as close as many polls predicted: Perdue won by 7 percentage points.

It’s unclear how competitive Georgia will be for presidential or U.S. Senate races in 2016, as Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson seeks a third term, but the flow of big money is expected to continue.

Nunn raised and spent more than Perdue, though her advantage was more than offset by a deluge of outside spending attacking her from groups such as the Ending Spending Action Fund and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Over nearly a year and a half in the race, Nunn raised and spent $16 million. The only non-incumbent in the country from either party to outraise her was Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. Perdue — who put in $3 million of his own money and had a bloody, lengthy GOP primary — raised and spent $13 million.

Throughout the year, right-leaning outside groups spent nearly $16 million attacking Nunn or supporting Perdue, while left-leaning groups spent more than $5 million opposing Perdue or backing Nunn. An additional $7 million in outside money was spent trying to tip the scales in the Republican primary or runoff.

Nunn’s national buck-raking success gives Democrats hope that they can compete financially with Republicans in the future, as they maintain rising numbers of young and minority voters will help them break Republicans’ grip on the state.

Atlanta Democratic strategist Tharon Johnson, who advised the Nunn campaign, said donors will not give up on Georgia after failing to move the needle in 2014.

“National donors will give Georgia a second and third chance because of the changing demographics in the state,” Johnson said. “Georgia is getting browner by the day.”

The Democrats’ national money — and polls showing a tight race — brought in a similar deluge from the Republican side. All the candidates spent a combined $45.7 million, more than doubling the previous Georgia U.S. Senate candidate spending record of $22.7 million in 2008.

New technology and a rapidly shifting media world meant that campaigns and outside groups directed more of their money toward online targeting of voters in 2014, but the largest piles of money were devoted to television advertisements — as they have been for decades.

TV “still has the widest reach of any medium, any technology,” said Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University. “That may change in the future, but that won’t be anytime soon.”

There were some new wrinkles.

The Perdue campaign devoted about 10 percent of its television budget to targeting individual voters who have Dish or DirecTV.

A typical television buy is a bet that the voters you want to reach are watching “Wheel of Fortune” or the Falcons game at a specific time, while also sending a lot of other people your message. But this new approach allows campaigns to take their voter file and match it with satellite customers, then send them the ad — regardless of what programs they are watching.

As an added bonus, campaigns only pay for the ads the voters actually watch.

Perdue’s top consultant, Paul Bennecke, said the tactic was especially useful for television markets that overlap from Georgia into neighboring states, such as Tallahassee, Fla.

“It’s highly cost-efficient because you’re only reaching households you want to reach,” said Bennecke, who said this was the first time the technology has been employed in Georgia.

“It is feeding them based on them actually viewing the TV spot,” he said, “instead of just hoping they are watching the program.”