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Georgia’s US Senate race on pace to be the nation’s costliest this year

Nov. 3, 2022 Updated Thu., Nov. 3, 2022 at 9 p.m.

Sen. Raphael Warnock speaks to supporters during his campaign tour, outside of the Liberty Theater on Oct. 8, 2022, in Columbus, Georgia. Warnock is running for reelection against Republican candidate Herschel Walker.  (Megan Varner/Getty Images North America/TNS)
Sen. Raphael Warnock speaks to supporters during his campaign tour, outside of the Liberty Theater on Oct. 8, 2022, in Columbus, Georgia. Warnock is running for reelection against Republican candidate Herschel Walker. (Megan Varner/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Shannon McCaffrey and Tia Mitchell Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA – Less than two years after donors poured record amounts of money into Georgia to capture a pair of U.S. Senate seats, the state is again leading the nation in the race for political cash.

The Senate contest between Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and his Republican challenger, Herschel Walker, is shaping up as the costliest in the nation this year. Warnock, who has been in office less than two years, has emerged as the chamber’s top fundraiser. Federal campaign disclosures show Warnock has raked in some $37 million more than U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, the Arizona Democrat who ranks No. 2.

Warnock has raised $115 million and Walker $37 million, according to the most recent campaign filings, covering a period running until Oct. 19. The staggering haul is fueling a blitz of ads on television and social media – some of them featuring highly personal attacks. It’s left Georgians, such as Yvonne Edman, aghast.

“The negative campaign ads are the most hideous, the worst thing that we can experience,” the Democratic volunteer from Lithia Springs said. “This has got to stop.”

That’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

Small donors – who have increased nationally thanks to digital fundraising – make up 48% of Warnock’s total and 43% of Walker’s.

“That base of small donors is important because it shows a wide base of support,” said Suzanne Robbins, an assistant professor at the University of Florida who specializes in campaign finance. “It shows that someone is willing to open their wallet at a time when their wallet is light. And if you do that, you are going to vote.”

Political action committees account for a small slice of their money – 1.4% for Warnock and 1.7% for Walker. Warnock raised the most money from California, followed by Georgia and New York, while the largest percentage of Walker’s cash came from Georgia, followed by Florida and Texas.

And while the candidates’ own campaign money is significant, it’s being supplemented by tens of millions of dollars gushing in from outside groups. So far, nearly $250 million has been spent on advertising in the state, according to data compiled by political strategist Rick Dent. Only one-third of that has been paid for by the candidates’ own campaigns, the data showed.

Warnock’s campaign is sinking $5.9 million into ad buys this week alone, records found.

‘A fundraising phenomenon’

It was a Sunday afternoon in June when Warnock’s SUV crunched up the gravel driveway of former U.S. Rep. John Barrow’s home in Athens. Inside were a few dozen supporters who had each contributed hundreds – and in some cases thousands – of dollars to the senator’s reelection campaign.

Sipping bottles of Red Stripe beer and plastic cups of cabernet, they waited for their turn to chat with Warnock, who was stationed in a sun room wearing a suit despite unseasonably warm temperatures. After mingling with the guests, Warnock, spoke about why this election matters. Then he took questions.

Warnock’s path to fundraising success has been filled with grassroots gatherings such as this. He has also headlined high-dollar events and raked in contributions from billionaires, such as LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, and celebrities such as Kerry Washington and Jennifer Garner.

“He’s a fundraising phenomenon,” said Kristin Oblander, a Democratic fundraiser in Atlanta.

Oblander, who is not working for Warnock, said he has never stopped raising money, careening from the 2020 general election to the record-shattering 2021 runoff. Warnock had scarcely been sworn into office following his runoff win before he launched his reelection bid.

“In general, once you get a donor on board you keep that donor on board,” Oblander said. “He has managed to keep his inspired and excited, and they keep giving.”

State Rep. Spencer Frye, an Athens Democrat who was on hand for the event at Barrow’s home explained it this way.

“I can’t remember exactly what he said, but I can tell you how I felt when I left,” Frye said. “Inspired.”

Warnock has also tapped small donors through a sophisticated digital fundraising operation that allows him to reach voters across the nation, many of whom donated to his runoff bid. Like that race, this one is a magnet for national cash because of the critical role it played – and could play again – in determining control of the Senate.

Warnock has spent $71 million on ads so far. He’s had help from outside groups such as Georgia Honor, created by the Democratic Senate Majority PAC, which spent about $37 million on ads; and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, which has ponied up more than $9 million. Many of the ads have attacked Walker, reviving his ex-wife’s claims of domestic violence, for instance, and allegations he paid for a girlfriend’s abortion. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has not been able to talk to these women or independently verify the allegations.)

But the onslaught of negative ads can backfire.

Jay Misback, a self-described independent who showed up at a recent Walker rally outside of a gun store in Jasper, said the negative advertising about Walker actually pulled him toward the candidate.

“Everybody has something in their past,” he said.

From Mar-a-Lago to Main Street

There was a line waiting to get into a Walker fundraiser last fall at the elegant Marietta Country Club. Some had football paraphernalia for him to sign. Others were eager to get selfies with the former football great.

A smiling Walker made a point of speaking to everyone in the room before offering up a speech heavy on patriotism, recalled Heath Garrett, a Republican strategist who attended.

This wasn’t a typical fundraiser where participants show up a little late and hustle out a little early after the required small talk, Garrett said.

“It was more like a pep rally for America,” Garrett said

Walker has leveraged his celebrity to raise $37 million. While that’s only one-third of what Warnock took in, it’s the most money raised by any first-time candidate in Georgia history and among the top dollar amounts in the nation..

Like Warnock, Walker has also tapped deep-pocketed donors. He held fundraisers twice at Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald Trump’s Palm Beach, Florida, home. His campaign said the events raised $1.3 million, although Walker had to shell out close to $200,000 for catering and use of the venue.

A constellation of GOP groups are helping Walker close the wide money gap between him and Warnock. The Senate Leadership Fund, a PAC affiliated with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has funneled more than $39 million into ads in Georgia. One Nation, a Republican PAC, has spent about $21 million, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee has chipped in $13 million.

Some of those ads have shown body cam footage from a 2020 incident in which Warnock’s ex-wife said he ran over her foot. (Atlanta police investigated the incident, and an officer said in a police report that medical officials found no visible signs of injury to the foot. Warnock was not charged.)

But despite the heavy outside spending, Garrett said he expected that the GOP would ultimately lag behind.

“Once the Democratic fundraising machine turns on for a battleground state like Georgia they typically outspend Republicans,” Garrett said.

PAC money

Both men collected a relatively small percentage of contributions from political action committees.

Walker raised $574,498 from PACs, less than 2% of his total.

Much of that money came from the leadership PACs of fellow Republicans. Additionally, he raised money from the PACs of several pro gun rights groups, including the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun-maker Sig Sauer and the National Rifle Association. Energy interests also donated, such as the National Mining Association, the Western Energy Alliance and the Domestic Energy Producers Alliance.

Warnock eschewed corporate PAC donations in his runoff race and said he planned to do so again.

“I’m not taking a cent of corporate PAC money – and unlike the GOP’s megadonors, I don’t have millions to sink into my campaign,” he wrote in a fundraising appeal on Twitter in June 2021.

But although Warnock’s campaign is not as heavily reliant on corporate dollars as many of his counterparts, he hasn’t avoided them completely.

He has received thousands of dollars from political committees controlled by other Democratic lawmakers, and those committees are often funded heavily by corporate dollars. For example, New Jersey U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez donated $5,000 to Warnock on Sept. 30 via his New Millennium PAC. Dozens of companies, ranging from pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to aerospace and defense contractor Northrop Grumman, have cut checks to that entity.

Warnock also has collected checks from political committees tied to labor unions and industry groups, such as the agriculture co-op representing beet sugar farmers, the American Crystal Sugar Co., and the National Association of Realtors’ political committee.

He also has received donations from lobbying firms who represent corporations. Holland & Knight donated $5,000 to the campaign in August; its lengthy client list includes United HealthGroup, a major health care and insurance company, and InterContinental Hotels Group, according to the OpenSecrets database.

The Republican Party’s campaign arm for the Senate races has accused Warnock of breaking his pledge to not take corporate PAC money.

“Democrats like to set rules for themselves, but they would never dare actually follow those rules,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman T.W. Arrighi said in a statement earlier this year after conservative media reported on Warnock’s fundraising.

“Criticizing corporate money in politics is a prime example, as vulnerable Democrat senators like Raphael Warnock roll around in piles of corporate cash.”

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