Teresa Tomlinson was never going to be the only Democrat in the race to challenge U.S. Sen. David Perdue. But her fundraising during a three-month window when she had the attention all to herself could help edge rivals into the contest.
The former Columbus mayor told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution she will report raising about $520,000 between April and June, about three-quarters of it coming from Georgia donors. She said she’ll end the quarter with roughly $330,000 in the bank.
In a typical election cycle, that kind of haul from a lower-profile candidate might be celebrated. But instead, it’s revved up talk about how soon other candidates will jump in the race against Perdue, a prolific fundraiser who is set to report nearly $5 million in his account.
“Not only are Democrats competitive in fundraising, but we also have many smart, energetic and charismatic future leaders,” said T.J. Copeland, the 5th District Democratic chairman. “I am sure that we will see some of them joining the race in the near future.”
That’s because national Democrats see Georgia as crucial to flipping control of the U.S. Senate — and hope the GOP’s growing struggles in the Atlanta suburbs and Perdue’s alliance with President Donald Trump leave him weakened for next year’s race.
Tomlinson’s potential rivals are fast gearing up. Sarah Riggs Amico, the runner-up in last year’s race for lieutenant governor, sent word through allies that she’s preparing to enter the race within weeks. Former 6th Congressional District candidate Jon Ossoff, who raised $30 million in his 2017 defeat, is exploring a bid.
And Democratic circles were abuzz with talk that Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry, who has embraced efforts to decriminalize marijuana and raise the minimum wage in his DeKalb County city, is expected to announce a run on Wednesday. Terry, a vice chairman of the state Democratic Party, declined to comment.
Tomlinson has spent the past three months trying to portray herself as the party’s front-runner while better-known figures, including Stacey Abrams and Sally Quillian Yates, chose not to run. But she has a long road ahead to raise the $22 million she frequently says she must collect to defeat Perdue.
Her initial take lagged behind the more robust fundraising from Democratic challengers in other states. At least six Democratic challengers have announced seven-figure fundraising results in the second quarter, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The total is also a fraction of what past contenders raised. Michelle Nunn, the nonprofit chief executive who lost to Perdue in 2014, collected more than $1.7 million in the quarter after she entered the race. And Perdue netted $810,000 in the first months after he announced his candidacy in 2013.
(On the other hand, political novice Jim Barksdale pumped $3.1 million of his own money into his 2016 challenge to Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson — and raised less than $100,000 — during his first fundraising test.)
Tomlinson’s finance director, Edana Walker, called the amount “impressive under the circumstance.”
“The breadth of the grassroots efforts and the progressive influencers and bundler contributors that make up this total is what defines it,” said Walker, a veteran of the Abrams campaign. “And, therefore, sets the foundation for a $22 million campaign.”
No ‘quick start’
The reports were closely watched because they’re the public’s first peek at Tomlinson’s finances since she filed the paperwork to run in early April, when she said she would only launch a campaign if Abrams did not. She stepped up her campaign in May, shortly after Abrams opted against making a bid.
The fundraising numbers don’t necessarily indicate public support, but they are an important gauge of enthusiasm behind a candidate. They also offer a chance to scare off potential competitors with an intimidating haul.
“For a statewide race, you need to be in the millions. She’s not off to a quick start,” said Kerwin Swint, the director of Kennesaw State University’s School of Government and International Affairs. “You had some potential candidates who were waiting to see the numbers — and they’ll now probably decide to get in.”
Republicans poked fun at the results. Ryan Mahoney, a strategist for Brian Kemp’s successful campaign for governor in 2018, described the the total as “really good fundraising numbers IF you were running for state Senate.” A pro-Perdue group contrasted Tomlinson with Jaime Harrison, a South Carolina Democrat who raised about three times more.
Tomlinson’s allies expressed confidence she’ll step up fundraising and pointed to other Democrats, including Abrams, who struggled to raise cash early in their campaigns.
Howard Franklin, a Democratic strategist, noted Tomlinson raised money from roughly 3,500 donors while refusing to accept money from corporate political action committees.
“It’s going to be tough for the folks who have been mentioned to play catch-up when Teresa has been working for almost a year to consolidate Democrats’ support and raise an impressive number out of the gate,” Franklin said.
Perdue, meanwhile, quickly expanded his own fundraising edge in a race that’s likely to become the most expensive U.S. Senate contest in state history.
The first-term Georgia Republican is set to report that he raised about $1.9 million during the latest reporting period, which spans from April to June. He has roughly $4.9 million in cash on hand. A pro-Perdue booster also raised $500,000 over the same period.
Perdue will likely rely on Trump and Kemp, another close ally, to help rake in cash over the next 14 months. Perdue’s top strategist, Derrick Dickey, said the haul shows that Perdue “is an outsider with a proven record,” but he added a word of caution.
“Georgia is a top target for Democrats,” he said, “and they have shown they will do whatever it takes to defeat Senator Perdue and President Trump in 2020.”
As for state Democratic leaders, they’re far from panic mode. At a town hall meeting in Conyers, party Chairwoman Nikema Williams didn’t directly mention Tomlinson’s fundraising but told an audience of a few dozen activists that the Senate field will probably grow crowded — and quickly.
“I anticipate many more candidates jumping in, and that’s a good thing,” said Williams, who is also a state senator. “These seats belong to the people.”
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