Record fundraising in Georgia Senate races the new norm, experts say

Campaigns raised more than $500 million not including $433 million poured in from outside sources.

It was clear weeks ago, but now it’s official: Georgia’s two new senators, Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, raised more money for their elections than any other congressional candidates in history.

Reports filed Thursday evening with the Federal Election Commission show Ossoff and Warnock raised totals of $162.6 million and $147.1 million, respectively, in their successful bids to oust Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. Both figures eclipsed the candidate with the third most contributions, South Carolina Democrat Jaime Harrison who raised an astounding $130.2 million in his defeat to incumbent Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.

The unprecedented totals reported by the Georgia campaigns were due largely to the fact that both races were thrown into a runoff after no candidate for either seat received a majority of votes following the November general election. Donations poured into the state as it became clear that Democrats could take control of the Senate if they flipped both seats.

“Georgia just became a target for an influx of money from everywhere,” said Paul Herrnson, a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut and a fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics. “It came down to huge stakes in Georgia. However, the more recent trends explain why the stakes are so huge.”

Both corporate donations and individual giving to political campaigns are driven by a closely divided, politically polarized political environment, he said. Coming out of a contentious presidential election, donors were looking for the next way to impact national politics, and Georgia was the only contest left, he said.

As a result, Warnock raised 70% of his total donations from mid-October to mid-December, the vast majority of that coming after the Nov. 3 general election. For Ossoff, 66% of his receipts came during the that same period.

The campaigns spent as quick as they raised. Ossoff’s campaign reported a total of $156.8 million spent. Warnock reported $144.3 million in spending for the cycle.

The Republicans raised massive amounts of cash in their own right, as conservatives rallied with their checkbooks in an attempt to “Save the Senate.” Perdue raised just under $103 million in his attempt to gain a second term. Loeffler’s final report shows her campaign raised $92.2 million, including $23 million of her own money that she loaned for the effort.

Combined, the Ossoff-Perdue race raked in $265.5 million in campaign donations, while the Warnock-Loeffler race combined for $239.3 million. That places the Georgia races first and third in the all-time most expensive races, separated by the Graham-Harrison race in South Carolina which clocked in with $239.8 million in donations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Ian Vandewalker, senior counsel in the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, said the growth in the cost of Senate campaigns is striking.

“A few years ago, not even four or five years ago, a $100 million election was a very expensive election,” he said. “And these are three and four times that.”

Donations big and small

Individuals giving relatively small amounts online, sometimes with monthly, recurring donations, drove the much of the donations. “The internet makes it very easy,” Vanderwalker said.

While online platforms like ActBlue and WinRed accounted for millions in small-dollar donations to the campaigns, Vanderwalker said the more important takeaway was not the technology but the impulse driving donors from around the nation to contribute to a campaign in Georgia.

The presidential campaign encouraged millions of people to give money to political campaigns for the first time. That carried over into congressional campaigns.

“We have very polarized national politics right now and people really care about which party controls the Congress,” he said. “That makes them give strategically to campaigns across the country.”

Even so, those small donors “are still being outspent by the big interests,” he said.

The mountains of cash may seem like an anomaly, given Georgia’s unique situation. But insanely expensive campaigns were a trend in 2020.

For perspective, the congressional candidates in the top 10 most expensive races in the nation last year raised a total of $1.5 billion in donations. All were for the Senate. Four years ago, the candidates in the top 10 races — again, all for the Senate — raised 75% less than that figure, for a combined $382.8.

In fact, the Ossoff and Perdue campaigns raised more than the top five races in 2016 combined.

The new norm

While Georgia’s political situation is unique, there’s no reason to expect races will become less expensive in the future, Herrnson said.

Both corporate donations and individual giving to political campaigns are driven by a closely divided, politically polarized political environment, he said. While Georgia may look like an anomaly, nothing about that environment has changed. As a result, Herrnson said he anticipates spending will continue to increase.

“The only thing that could change it would be regulation or a year when the outcomes are pretty much guaranteed,” he said, adding that neither of those factors seem likely.

The campaigns even had some money left over, which matters especially for Warnock, who has to run for his seat again in two years. Warnock’s campaign reported $3.2 million in cash on hand; Ossoff’s campaign has $2.5 million.

The figures only include donations to the candidates’ principal committees and not the hundreds of millions spent independently by dozens of political action committees, which choked Georgia’s airwaves and bandwidth with every conceivable attack ad in the weeks leading up to the Jan. 5 runoff.

Outside spending for both races totaled another $432.6 million, again according to figures from the Center for Responsive Politics. All of that spending adds up to more than $937 million — not quite the $1 billion some predicted, but record-breaking nonetheless.