Unprecedented level of political money pours into Georgia

Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams and Republican nominee Brian Kemp greet each other before a recent debate. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
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Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams and Republican nominee Brian Kemp greet each other before a recent debate. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Turn on the TV and you’ll likely see a campaign ad. Same with going to Facebook or your favorite sports website or the mailbox.

Answer your doorbell and you might be greeted by a politician, a celebrity or young volunteer wanting to sell you on the importance of voting. And while you’re taking the time to do your civic duty, why not vote for his or her candidate for governor, either Republican Brian Kemp or Democrat Stacey Abrams.

It’s like this every election year, but this year even more so because political money has flooded the state like never before, making the race to replace Gov. Nathan Deal possibly Georgia’s first $100 million campaign.

“Independent committees” that are not allowed to coordinate with campaigns but help supply many of the internet ads, mailers and volunteers, have plowed more than $17 million into Georgia races this year, most of it from out-of-state sources. Some have names relatively unknown to locals — such as Power PAC — while others are more familiar: Planned Parenthood, the National Rifle Association and the National Association of Realtors. A majority of the money has been spent on the governor’s race.

The state Republican and Democratic parties have raised a combined $34 million, with much of it spent on attack ads targeting Abrams and Kemp.

And then there are the candidates for governor, who have collected about $66 million —  $43 million by Abrams and Kemp, and the rest from the hopefuls they vanquished in the primaries.

Those living in metro Atlanta's 6th Congressional District experienced an avalanche of money flowing into their special election last year, but even seasoned political operatives are surprised by the volume of cash being spent in this year's gubernatorial contest.

“It’s mind-blowing how much money we are seeing flow into this race,” said Rick Thompson, a former executive secretary of the state ethics commission who works with Republican candidates and funds.

In the national spotlight

The race between Abrams — vying to become the nation’s first African-American female governor — and Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who has been involved in highly publicized scraps with voting rights advocates for several years, has caught the attention of the nation and the national parties.

Abrams has long worked the national circuit, appearing on TV talk shows, attending grassroots political events and building an extensive online fundraising campaign that has brought in small donations from thousands of contributors giving $5, $10 or $20 at a time. Some donors have been put on payment plans to make it easier for them to give.

She's raised millions from Atlanta and other parts of Georgia, but a majority of her money has come from outside the state, giving rise to Republican attacks that she's counting on people from California and New York who can't vote here to fund her campaign.

Kemp, meanwhile, has raised a vast majority of his money in Georgia, collecting big money in recent months from the lobbyists, special-interest PACs and institutional business donors who had supported his GOP runoff opponent, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. Kemp easily beat Cagle in the July runoff, and many of the lieutenant governor's donors quickly contributed to the Republican nominee.

The two political parties have eclipsed recent fundraising records as well this year. Kemp’s campaign has donated at least $5.7 million, and the Washington-based Republican Governors Association has put $2 million into the party since the July runoff. The RGA’s “independent committee” spent another $2 million this summer.

Democratic Party coffers have been bolstered by out-of-state money as well, including at least $4 million from the Democratic Governors Association and $1 million from billionaire mega-donor George Soros.

Strategy behind attacks

Rick Dent, who has worked on campaigns in Georgia and other Southern states, said it’s not surprising that a lot of that money is being used to relentlessly attack Kemp and Abrams. Dent said it’s less effective for the candidates themselves to run ads attacking their opponents.

“If you attack, yes it’s going to hurt your opponent and take them down, but it drives up your negatives, too,” Dent said. “If somebody else is doing it, it hurts your opponents, but it doesn’t hurt you.”

The third campaign money pot has come from “independent committees” that run ads, raise money, canvass and send out mailers in support of candidates.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was able to identify more than a dozen such groups working on behalf of Abrams, with most of the money to support them coming from out-of-state sources. About half the money they are spending was raised by San Francisco-based Power PAC, which received at least $5.5 million in funding from Susan Sandler, a San Francisco philanthropist whose husband co-founded the organization.

The Abrams “independent committees” are diverse, including Washington-based Black PAC, Phoenix-based Gente4Abrams and the Asian American Advocacy Fund Independent Committee from Norcross.

Kemp has been aided by about $1.25 million in advertising, mailings and phone banks from the National Rifle Association’s “independent committee” and $130,000 in online advertising paid for by the Chicago-based National Association of Realtors.

Not just the governor’s race

Other candidates have also benefited from "independent committees" this campaign season. The Washington-based Republican Attorneys General Association has pumped $1.3 million into the campaign for Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr through an "independent committee" called Peachtree Prosperity. Another D.C.-area fund used more than $3 million in untraceable contributions to knock state Sen. David Shafer out of the lieutenant governor's race, helping Geoff Duncan win a narrow victory in the July Republican runoff.

Thompson said one of the biggest trends this year is where the money is going.

“There is still a lot of money going to regular TV, but there is a tremendous increase in social media and online advertising,” he said. “It’s more than just Facebook. The entire digital marketing spectrum has increased dramatically, even just over the past two years.”

Dent said it’s “cost-effective” for candidates and campaigns because it’s relatively cheap to reach the voters they want to target.

“The best part about social media is you can have interactions with the voters,” he said. “On social media, people start writing you back and start telling you exactly what they like and don’t like, and you can tweak (the message) immediately. It’s almost like having a focus group on every ad.”

While some of the millions are flowing to Georgia because of the high-profile nature of Abrams’ bid, Georgia political operatives don’t expect the spigot to close after Tuesday’s election — with or without a runoff. The next election — in 2020 — will bring a supercharged presidential race and a big-money U.S. Senate contest in Georgia, and they see the state as increasingly competitive after more than a decade of Republican domination.

“We may never be as much of a swing state as Florida or Ohio,” said Kristin Oblander, who until this year held the Georgia gubernatorial race record by raising $22 million for Gov. Roy Barnes’ unsuccessful re-election campaign in 2002. “But the profile of Georgia on the national scene has been raised this year.”

Party fundraising

Approximate amount raised by Georgia’s Republican and Democratic parties, as of Oct. 25, each election cycle:


Republicans: $13.6 million

Democrats: $4.7 million


Republicans: $3.9 million

Democrats: $2.2 million


Republicans: $8.7 million

Democrats: $7.9 million


Republicans: $3.2 million

Democrats: $1.27 million


Republicans: $6 million

Democrats: $4.56 million


Republicans: $4 million

Democrats: $3.1 million


Republicans: $14.97 million

Democrats: $19.4 million

Source: Campaign disclosures


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. Recent AJC stories have examined Kemp's finances and Abrams' position while in the state Legislature as a leading collector of per diem. Look for more at ajc.com/politics as the state heads for the general election on Nov. 6.

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