National money fuels Georgia’s top 2022 races

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Stacey Abrams and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock are expanding their donor bases far beyond Georgia to wage their Democratic campaigns. Republican Herschel Walker’s recent trip to former President Donald Trump’s resort in Florida was one of a string of fundraising forays beyond state lines.

As Georgia emerges as the premier political battleground state, candidates and voters are grappling with a new reality: The nationalization of the races means that soaring campaign contributions from out-of-state donors are here to stay.

That trend is underscored by an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of campaign disclosures that account for itemized donations — that is, higher-dollar campaign contributions to state and federal campaigns.

Abrams, who is running for governor, and Warnock both collected more than 80% of their campaign cash from out-of-state donors in the latest disclosure, which covered roughly two months for Abrams’ campaign and three months for Warnock’s bid.

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

Their fundraising, burnished over the past two election cycles as each became brand-name figures, helped Democrats amass far more campaign cash than their top Republican rivals in the last reporting period.

That has helped Democrats neutralize the GOP’s traditional in-state financial edge and put Republicans on the defensive.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s allies in the Georgia Senate pushed an overhaul of fundraising rules that would block his adversaries from collecting campaign contributions during the legislative session, requiring them to comply with an ethics rule that legislative and statewide incumbents already follow.

And last year the governor signed a law that allows him to use a new committee to raise unlimited campaign contributions. A federal judge banned him from using the funds against Republican primary challengers but left the door open to relying on the funding in November.

Republicans are getting in on the out-of-state act, too, led by Walker. The former football star, who lived in Texas before mounting his Senate campaign, amassed $5.4 million over the final three months of 2021 — the most of any GOP Senate challenger in the nation.

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

Donors outside Georgia accounted for more than half of Walker’s itemized donations in his first fundraising report, reflecting a new political norm for Republicans who increasingly leaned on non-Georgians for financial support and created a “50-state strategy” in recent years.

Rick Dent, a veteran political consultant, said Georgians should get used to it.

“The voters don’t care where the money comes from, and the candidates don’t care where the money comes from,” he said.

“That money is about control of the U.S Senate, keeping power or getting power and all the goodies that come with that,” Dent added. “That money doesn’t care about the people of Georgia; it cares about winning.”

‘Outsiders’

Thanks to Georgia’s battleground status, even down-ticket candidates can appeal to wealthy contributors in places such as California and New York.

And unlike past election cycles, when some donors treated Georgia flipping blue as a when-pigs-fly fantasy, now they need only point to the November 2020 election or last year’s Senate runoffs as proof that statewide victories are attainable for Democrats.

Warnock, who often calls himself the nation’s most vulnerable Democratic Senate incumbent, has used that message to ratchet up his fundraising. His $9.8 million haul over the final three months of 2021 made him the nation’s top Senate fundraiser for the second quarter in a row.

And Abrams amassed $9.2 million in about two months, outdoing both Kemp and his Republican rival, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue. She collected nearly $2 million more in that span than Kemp did over a six-month period. Perdue badly trailed both, pulling in only about $1 million since December.

The strategy ensures that the two Democrats will have the resources to flood the airwaves with ads, build teams of canvassers and target even unlikely voters that other campaigns with thinner bank accounts might ignore.

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

But it also comes with downfalls, as Republicans keen on painting Democrats as tools of wealthy “outsiders” can weaponize the spending.

Stephen Lawson, who runs a pro-Walker political organization, said the out-of-state spending benefiting the Democratic incumbent is “the clearest sign yet that Georgians can’t afford another six years of Raphael Warnock — literally.”

Warnock’s campaign said it received contributions from voters in 158 of Georgia’s 159 counties, logging more individual in-state donors than any other candidate in the race. More than 93% of the Democrat’s overall contributions are under $100.

Walker, too, has faced scrutiny of his fundraising network outside of Georgia. In October, he was forced to cancel a fundraiser with a conservative film producer in Texas who used a swastika-like symbol as her Twitter profile picture.

‘Comical’

With the exception of Walker, who can rely on his celebrity to raise campaign cash, the analysis showed Georgia’s Trump-backed candidates haven’t benefited from a rush of national money.

Despite being part of Senate runoffs that shattered political fundraising records, Perdue hasn’t yet leveraged that massive donor base for his challenge to Kemp.

He collected just $1.1 million in the first two months of the campaign, though Trump plans a high-dollar fundraiser for Perdue in March to help boost his account.

“I’m a big boy. I know I’m not going to outraise an incumbent governor,” Perdue said at a recent campaign stop. “But this isn’t going to be about money. It’s going to be about people versus politicians.”

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

State Sen. Burt Jones, who is running for lieutenant governor, and U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, competing for secretary of state, also primarily relied on in-state donations to fuel their Trump-endorsed campaigns.

The Democrats are lacing their calls for cash with new urgency after threats by Republican legislators to pass a new law that would block candidates for governor, legislative seats and other key elections from raising money during the legislative session.

“I know that every time they try to rig the rules to maintain power, they embolden more Georgians to join our fight for new leadership,” Abrams campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo wrote donors in one of a string of appeals.

Abrams has found common cause over the fundraising proposal with Perdue, who criticized the overhaul as an “incumbent protection act.”

Their unlikely alliance drew a rebuke from Kemp, whose administration has pushed the changes.

“I thought it was kind of comical that Perdue is lining up with Stacey Abrams,” Kemp said at a campaign stop in Gainesville.

“He said, and she said, they always want everything to be equitable and fair. And it’s not,” Kemp said. “They can raise money now, and people who are in session can’t.”

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

Credit: Isaac Sabetai

Credit: Isaac Sabetai