Money Floods Georgia Senate Runoffs With Ugly Ads Cranking Up

Georgia’s two U.S. Senate runoffs are transfixing the country, drawing record sums of money and attracting a herd of political strategists and consultants.

Election workers are still recounting ballots in the Nov. 3 presidential race, but voters are already looking ahead to Jan. 5, when they will determine whether Democrats retake the Senate majority — and therefore how readily President-elect Joe Biden can get legislation passed, cabinet appointments approved and judges confirmed. On Friday, several TV networks called Biden the winner in Georgia, making him the first Democrat to take the state since Bill Clinton in 1992.

Due to a state law that requires federal candidates to get at least 50% of the vote in the general election, Georgia has runoffs for both its Senate seats. Democratic newcomer Raphael Warnock is facing off against the incumbent Republican, Senator Kelly Loeffler; and Republican incumbent David Perdue is running against Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff.

Total spending on the races could approach $1 billion, predicted Rick Dent, a communications consultant who tracks campaign finance. That includes more than $200 million already spent on the general election as well as the money from PACs and independent outside groups.

“It’s national money and it’s national attention,” said Kerwin Swint, chair of the political science department at Kennesaw State University. “It’s going to get crazy, and through the holiday season.”

Celebrity Donors

Even before the country could absorb the election of a new president — and before President Donald Trump has acknowledged defeat — people across the country began coalescing on social media, email and text strings, urging friends and contacts to send money to Georgia.

Wealthy donors, such as Jeffrey Katzenberg and Byron Allen, were raising cash. Entrepreneur and former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang announced he would move his family from New York to Georgia.

“Rush a donation now,” Republican Governor Brian Kemp said in an appeal to contributors. “The U.S. Senate hangs in the balance. All eyes are on Georgia.”

Of course, having the most money is no guarantee of victory. In the general election, Democratic Senate candidates outspent Republicans in North and South Carolina, Maine, Iowa and Montana — and lost each race.

Election Weary

What will matter most is getting election-weary voters back to the polls — starting with early voting Dec. 14 — as the holiday season and Covid-19 compete for attention.

It has been difficult to get Georgia voters out for runoffs, and Republicans have fared better, said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor. But he thinks this time could be different, given the high stakes and a large bloc of newly registered Black voters, who may be motivated to make Warnock only the 11th Black senator.

The key for all four candidates, Bullock said, is to get their original voters back to the polls. “Whether you finished first or second, if you can get most of your people back, you win,” he said.

So far, Perdue, 70, a former chief executive officer of Reebok, Pillowtex and Dollar General, has gotten the biggest jump in the advertising race. As of Thursday, his campaign had reserved $17.7 million in air time through the end of the year. His opponent, Ossoff, a 33-year-old CEO of an investigative journalism production company, had reserved $2.9 million, according to ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics.

Air Time

In the other race, Warnock, 51, senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. presided, had reserved $3.7 million in air time as of Thursday. His opponent, Loeffler, 49, had reserved just under $200,000.

Independent Republican groups, including Americans for Prosperity Action and Club for Growth Action, had reserved a total of $20.5 million in ad air time. Democratic groups, including Fair Fight Action, founded by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, had reserved a total of $3.1 million.

Until now, the most a Senate candidate has raised for a runoff was the $4.5 million Mike Espy brought in before a 2018 Mississippi race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Loeffler, a wealthy businesswoman who co-owns the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, loaned her campaign more than that — $5 million — in the third quarter this year and likely will put money into her runoff as well.

As for total runoff spending, a 2014 Louisiana contest between Senator Mary Landrieu, the incumbent, and eventual winner Bill Cassidy had been the most expensive in Senate history, with a combined $12.7 million spent by the candidates and outside groups.

So far in Georgia’s Senate races, outside groups including party committees and super-PACs have spent $127.6 million, with $67.5 million supporting Perdue. The candidates combined to spend another $102 million.

The brief time before the voting will limit expenditures. But with so much on the line, no one will have problems raising money.

Attack Ads

“If one of the candidates needs to have some celebrity show up here in person, they will be on a chartered jet and here in two hours,” the University of Georgia’s Bullock said. There will be so many ads on television during the holidays that “there won’t be any room for Santa Claus.”

In one released a day after the general election, Warnock revealed that he eats pizza with a fork and once stepped on a crack in a sidewalk. It was his tongue-in-cheek way of letting voters know that negative — and sometimes outrageous — ads were about to hit the airwaves. It didn’t take long.

A few days later, Loeffler released an ad connecting Warnock with Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright, a bogeyman for the right whom Republicans also used against Barack Obama when he was seeking the presidency. Warnock shot back a day later with an ad that criticized Loeffler for selling shares in pandemic-related companies after she had been privy to confidential Covid-19 related briefings.

The exchange signaled a charged political season’s final spasm.

It’s “the perfect ending for a deranged year like 2020,” said Dent. He said conditions couldn’t get much crazier “unless aliens invade the Earth and take over. Which still could happen this year, too.”

— With assistance by Bill Allison, and Billy House

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