Senate leaders wage proxy war in Georgia with millions from rich donors

Total ad spending, most of it negative, already reaches $400 million.

Hedge fund billionaires and trade unions are funneling millions into Georgia’s Senate races through two powerful super PACs, which in turn are blanketing the state with negative ads in an attempt to motivate core voters to return to the polls Jan. 5.

For political veterans like Kennesaw State University political science professor Kerwin Swint, the attention is understandable. The two Senate runoffs pitting Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock against Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler is a unique, high-stakes election.

“I can’t remember a situation quite like this where complete control of the Senate hinged on one state,” Swint said. “There is so much money coming in from both sides and outside groups, independent groups, because there is no tomorrow — Jan. 5 is D-Day as far as the Senate goes.”

ExploreWhat’s at stake in the Senate runoffs

Total ad spending on the runoff is already at $400 million, according to AdImpact, a Virginia-based data firm that tracks political spending. And two dueling super PACs, the Republican-backed Senate Leadership Fund and the Democratic Senate Majority PAC, are locked in a breakneck race to raise and spend as much as they can to turn out their voters.

According to reports filed earlier this month, the Republican-led PAC, with ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, reported $104 million in donations between Oct. 15 and Nov. 23, most of that coming in after the November general election. The Democratic PAC, associated with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, raised just a hair under $90 million.

The vast sums of money mean Georgia voters will continue to be inundated with attack ads, mailers, phone calls and text messages as the parties attempt to rile up their core voters and get them to the polls.

“At this point it’s about voter mobilization. It’s really not about persuasion,” Swint said. “It’s all about demonizing the other side. It’s a motivational factor. It’s trying to give your supporters all the more reason to cast that ballot or vote early.”

Millions in undisclosed donations

Hefty donations are a protected form of political speech, but Susannah Scott, president of the League of Women Voters of Georgia, said the massive donations sought by super PACs have dramatically altered how elections are conducted.

“I’m seeing two ads per candidate every commercial break, and most of them are attack ads that don’t talk about their positions,” she said. “The goal should be that voters understand what their positions are.”

In an interview with Fox News earlier this month, Senate Leadership Fund president Steven Law crowed about the huge fundraising numbers. Law, McConnell’s one-time chief of staff, pegged the cash haul to voter enthusiasm over the Georgia races.

“We’re seeing it in our fundraising numbers, we’re also seeing it in our polling numbers that Republican voters in Georgia understand that everything is at stake: the Trump legacy, the future of freedom, the future of socialism, and right now they seem very energized to vote,” Law said.

There may be plenty of voter enthusiasm among Georgia Republicans, but the money came from elsewhere. Stephen Schwarzman, a billionaire confidant of President Trump and CEO of the Blackstone Group, a New York private equity investment firm, donated $15 million to the SLF in the most recent report, bringing his total contributions to $35 million this election cycle.

Another $12 million came from Kenneth Griffin, a Chicago billionaire hedge fund manager. Griffin’s total to the PAC for the cycle is $37 million. Las Vegas casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife, physician Miriam Adelson, have combined to give $70 million to the fund, including $10 million in the most recent report.

Notable Georgia contributions include $3.75 million from Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus.

The Senate Leadership Fund is bankrolled in part by One Nation, a non-profit that shares office space and personnel with the PAC. So-called dark money groups don’t disclose their donors.

In the 2020 election cycle, One Nation has funneled $62 million of its own untraceable donations to the Senate Leadership Fund. In turn, the SLF has spent $65 million so far in advertising targeting Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff.

Out-of-state donations

The money behind the Democratic Senate Majority PAC, known as SMP, similarly comes from deep-pocketed donors, mostly from outside of the state.

Working for Working Americans, the political action committee of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, contributed $13 million this cycle to SMP. Top individual contributors include New York hedge fund manager Jim Simons with $9.5 million and Audrey Cappell, founder of Foundation for a Just Society and Simons’ daughter, with $3 million.

Notable Georgia contributions include $2.5 million from Fair Fight, the PAC founded by former Democratic state representative and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.

Like its Republican counterpart, SMP has relied heavily on its dark money too: Majority Forward, which contributed $47.8 million to the PAC; and Duty and Honor, which contributed $15.9 million.

The gushers of unlimited money from billionaires and untraceable non-profits drowns out the voices of regular voters, Scott said.

“When you look at what individuals can contribute to an actual campaign, it is just so heavily skewed to rich people or large industries,” she said. “Most of us can’t contribute $70 million to a super PAC. It doesn’t really fit into a fundamental sense of fair play.”

Scott said the wealthy have the same right as anyone to participate in the political process, but she said there should be some restrains to the unlimited spending of super PACs. The League of Women Voters supports the For the People Act, a massive political reform bill introduced last year by House Democrats.

Along with addressing political gerrymandering and expanded voter registration, the bill would require dark money groups to disclose large donors and create a public matching program for federal candidates that refuse large donations. The bill passed the Democratic-controlled House without any support from Republicans, who opposed it on a number of grounds, including its campaign finance messages that they said would chill “political speech by forcing extensive donor disclosures.”

The bill has received no attention in the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority.

‘A saturation point’

Both the Senate Leadership Fund and the Senate Majority PAC spent millions on ads targeted at Senate races in other states throughout the 2020 cycle. For example, SMP targeted vulnerable Republicans in Maine and Iowa, failing to flip either seat, and in Michigan where they protected a Democratic seat. But with those races done, Georgia is the only game in town.

Last month, Law announced the Senate Leadership Fund and its affiliate PAC American Crossroads had booked $70 million in ad reservations for the runoffs. American Crossroads has already spent nearly $17 million, almost all of it since the November general election, funding attack ads against Warnock.

Law told CNN on Tuesday that another, newly formed committee, the Peachtree PAC, had committed to $43 million in spending.

There is so much money and such a short window in which to spend it, Swint said it’s not clear how much impact it will make.

“They have more money than they know what to do with at this point. I mean, how many ads can you buy? How many pieces of mail can you produce?” he said. “There is a saturation point where people stop paying attention, especially with direct mail. You run that risk of the average voter getting 10 pieces of mail a week. There comes a point where they don’t even look at it anymore.”

Television and radio ads, which have a captive audience, are probably more effective, he said.

While both sides have spent an unprecedented amount of money, the Republicans have the upper hand heading into the final three weeks of the runoff. In its post-general election report, filed Dec. 3, SMP reported just $2.1 million in cash on hand, compared to $60.7 million for the Republican SLF.

The SMP has reported spending $31.4 million in ads opposing Perdue, but just $247,000 attacking Loeffler, who was locked in a bruising interparty battle with Rep. Doug Collins in the crowded general election. That changed this week when SMP began running a reported $6.5 million ad campaign targeting the both incumbent senators’ financial dealings while in office.

Earlier this month, SMP president J.B. Poersch announced a $5.5 million ad buy through its affiliated committees, Georgia Honor and The Georgia Way.

Swint said this kind of spending likely isn’t going away after the Senate runoff.

“Georgia is now a swing state. It’s more competitive and more money will show up here than we have become accustomed to,” he said.

Graphic credit: Isaac Sabetai