Outside Money in Georgia Special Election Tops $20 Million

By Kenneth P. Doyle

Democrats are pouring money into a special House election campaign in Georgia, but face a disadvantage in outside spending in a contest that’s already the most expensive U.S. House race in history.

The June 20 election is still two weeks away, but Federal Election Commission reports reviewed by Bloomberg BNA showed a total of more than $20.1 million in independent campaign expenditures in the race so far. The money is coming from political party committees, super political action committees, and other outside groups.

The contest in the suburban Atlanta congressional district is between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel, but outside groups are likely to eclipse the candidates in campaign spending. The seat at stake was vacated by Rep. Tom Price (R) when he was appointed by President Donald Trump to be secretary of health and human services.

About $12.3 million of the outside spending in the Georgia race has come in since an April 18 preliminary election round. Of that amount, $7.8 million has favored Handel and $4.5 million favored Ossoff.

Ossoff’s campaign committee raised more than $8 million before the preliminary election, but he fell just short of gaining 50 percent of the vote need for an outright victory. Handel, who raised less than $500,000, finished second and qualified for the June 20 runoff, gaining just under 20 percent of the vote in a crowded field. Republican and conservative groups now have rallied around her.

Democrats’ Last Shot

Democrats, following defeats in Montana’s May 25 special congressional election and another special election in Kansas in April, have a last shot in Georgia at taking a Republican U.S. House seat and are spending far more in Georgia than in the previous races. Republicans, meanwhile, are seeking momentum heading into the 2018 midterm elections to hold onto their congressional majorities despite controversy and low poll numbers that have dogged Trump.

The candidates are set to file their final pre-election fundraising reports with the FEC on June 8. Meanwhile, new reports of large independent expenditures are being filed daily. These reports are required to be filed soon after each expenditure is made, allowing a snapshot of how much campaign money is coming into the Georgia race.

The amount of outside spending reported to the FEC in the Georgia race already has exceeded by more than $3 million the record of $16.7 million in outside spending in a 2016 U.S. House race in Nevada, and the money is still flowing.

Two other special House elections this month in California and South Carolina are seen as less competitive and have drawn little or no outside campaign spending in recent weeks.

GOP Up, Democrats Fight Back

Setting the stage for the showdown in Georgia has been a barrage of spending on TV ads and other voter mobilization efforts on both sides. While Republicans dominated outside spending before the April 18 preliminary election, Democrats have joined the fight in recent weeks.

That’s in contrast to the pattern in the two previous special elections—in Montana and Kansas—where Republican-allied groups spent heavily to help their candidates, while Democrats spent only a fraction of the GOP total.

As in the previous races, the biggest spender on the Republican side in the Georgia race is the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC closely aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and other House Republican leaders. The super PAC has spent more than $6 million in Georgia. That’s followed by the House Republicans’ party campaign committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), which has spent nearly $5.3 million.

On the Democratic side, the leading outside spender is the NRCC’s counterpart, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has spent more than $3.7 million. The super PAC aligned with the Democratic House leadership, the House Majority PAC, hasn’t spent any money in the Georgia race, but a nonprofit group supporting Democrats has.

The Democratic-allied nonprofit, called Patriot Majority, filed a report with the FEC on June 1 saying it is spending more than $270,000 on TV ads opposing Handel. It was the first campaign spending by the Democratic group this year. Patriot Majority, which doesn’t disclose its donors, has reported more than $18 million in independent expenditures in previous election cycles, mostly to help Democrats in key Senate races.

Super PAC a Major Factor

The House Republicans’ super PAC, known as CLF, has been a major factor in this year’s special elections, countering increased individual contributions to Democratic candidates motivated by Democratic donors’ opposition to Trump. CLF has raised nearly $7.5 million this year. Most of its recent funding has come from an allied nonprofit group, called the American Action Network, which doesn’t disclose its donors but is known to have received corporate money. The super PAC also has received direct corporate contributions from tobacco companies, a private prison company, a video game manufacturers’ association and others.

The money is paying for CLF TV ads running in the Georgia race that attack Ossoff for receiving contributions from individual donors living outside of Georgia. One commercial showing actors dressed in hippie garb, and cable cars in the streets of San Francisco, said California was “the leading funder of the Jon Ossoff campaign.”

CLF, the Republican super PAC, also spent big in Montana. CLF said in a statement after Republican Greg Gianforte won the Montana special election over Democrat Rob Quist—despite an incident in which Gianforte attacked a reporter—that the Republican super PAC’s $2.7 million in campaign spending was largely responsible for the result.

“Whether it was on TV, online, or at their door, Montanans quickly learned and were constantly reminded about Quist’s extreme liberal views, dishonesty, and irresponsible behavior—making him untrustworthy and unelectable,” the super PAC’s statement said.

Dems Largely Wrote Off Montana

Quist, a first-time candidate, raised more than $3.2 million for his campaign, most of it from small donors giving less than $200 each. That was about $1 million more than the amount of individual contributions collected by Gianforte, but Quist’s campaign spending was swamped by outside money aiding Gianforte.

Of the $7.2 million in outside campaign spending in the Montana race, $6.2 million was for Republican-allied groups’ TV ads and other messages opposing Quist or supporting Gianforte, Bloomberg BNA’s review of FEC independent expenditure reports found.

Democratic groups did provide some outside aid to Quist, but said after the race that they were correct not to provide more because polling showed the Democratic candidate never reached striking distance to win the race.

A May 26 statement from DCCC communications director Meredith Kelly said the Montana seat had “long been a reliably Republican-held seat” that was always going to be very difficult for Democrats to win. “Embarrassingly for the Republicans, they squandered more than $6 million in order to protect what has long been considered a safe red seat—for a likely criminal no less,” Kelly said.

The DCCC spent over $500,000 in the Montana race on TV ads, Kelly said, but didn’t continue to pour money into the race.

“Unfortunately, after weeks of parity [in campaign ads], the head-to-headnumbers simply did not move, according to multiple data sets before and after the investments,” she added.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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