Out­side do­na­tions a bless­ing and a curse

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - FRONT PAGE - By James Salzer jsalzer@ajc.com and Greg Bluestein gbluestein@ajc.com

The elec­tion is nearly three months away, but you’ve al­ready heard the pitch from Repub­li­cans: Stacey Abrams, the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee for gov­er­nor, is a rad­i­cal lib­eral bankrolled by lefty fat cats from Cal­i­for­nia and New York.

It’s true that lib­eral megadonor Ge­orge Soros of New York has al­ready pumped about $1.5 million into Abrams’ cam­paign, a po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee sup­port­ing her and the Ge­or­gia Demo­cratic Party. Na­tional la­bor unions have also dug deep into their cof­fers for the former state House mi­nor­ity leader, and so has some big money from the Left Coast.

But Repub­li­cans are spend­ing plenty of out­side money, too. Some of the first at­tack ads aimed

at Abrams af­ter Sec­re­tary of State Brian Kemp won last month’s GOP runoff came from the Repub­li­can Gov­er­nors As­so­ci­a­tion, a Wash­ing­ton group that poured more than $9 million into the past two Ge­or­gia races for gov­er­nor.

Out­side money will surely play an out­sized role in this year’s con­test, but Abrams’ cam­paign is adding a twist: thou­sands of small do­na­tions from folks like a high school English teacher from north­ern Vir­ginia, an Ohio peer coun­selor, a de­part­ment store man­ager from Seat­tle and a U.S. Navy of­fi­cer from San Diego.

The size of that small-dol­lar army points to a suc­cess­ful grass-roots cam­paign at the na­tional level that has sel­dom if ever been seen be­fore in Ge­or­gia, com­ing from a can­di­date who is hop­ing to be­come the na­tion’s first fe­male African-Amer­i­can gov­er­nor. It’s so vast, the cam­paign likes to boast, it over­whelmed the state’s fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sure sys­tem in early July.

The money is com­ing from peo­ple like Betsy McCann, who works in hu­man re­sources in Chicago and dis­cov­ered Abrams through what’s be­com­ing the typ­i­cal way: a post on so­cial me­dia from one of her friends. She was soon hooked, partly by the his­toric na­ture of Abrams’ cam­paign and partly by her strug­gle with debt, driven in part, the can­di­date says, by the need to help pay her par­ents’ med­i­cal bills.

“What ce­mented it with me was when she started talk­ing about the debt she had to take on to care for her fam­ily. That is some­thing ev­ery­body talks about,” said McCann, who gave $10 to the cam­paign. “There is also some­thing tremen­dously pow­er­ful about hav­ing a black woman gov­er­nor for the first time in this coun­try.”

Abrams’ fundrais­ing hasn’t been hurt by the fact that she’s be­come the dar­ling of the na­tional me­dia and ap­peared on the late-night TV cir­cuit sell­ing her cam­paign. But her aides have also done an ex­tra­or­di­nary amount of so­cial me­dia and email out­reach.

Her vast list of po­ten­tial donors has re­ceived mul­ti­ple emails a week re­act­ing to the news of the day and ask­ing for small in­cre­ments, some­times as lit­tle as $3. A Kemp at­tack or an en­dorse­ment from Pres­i­dent Barack Obama? Fresh rea­son to send out an­other re­quest for cash. Some donors are even on pay­ment plans for $5 ev­ery few weeks.

“Her whole life has been grass roots,” said Kristin Ob­lan­der, who still holds the Ge­or­gia gu­ber­na­to­rial race record by rais­ing $22 million for Gov. Roy Barnes’ un­suc­cess­ful re-elec­tion cam­paign in 2002. “She’s a com­plete and to­tal rock star. When you push the but­ton on the email, you are go­ing to get a lot of con­tri­bu­tions.”

That fundrais­ing prow­ess can back­fire. Look no fur­ther than last year’s U.S. House race be­tween Jon Os­soff and Karen Han­del, the most ex­pen­sive elec­tion of its kind. Os­soff raised a whop­ping $30 million — and it opened the door for Repub­li­cans to paint him as a pup­pet of San Fran­cisco lib­er­als.

Rob Simms, who ad­vised Han­del in that cam­paign, said Abrams’ fundrais­ing is a nat­u­ral ex­ten­sion of the Bernie San­ders strat­egy of rais­ing heaps of cash through small do­na­tions from lib­eral sup­port­ers. Left-lean­ing out­rage over Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s poli­cies only helps fan the flames.

“What you are see­ing all over the coun­try is that can­di­dates that fit into that space, and Abrams cer­tainly does, are able to tap into that en­ergy, and it’s hap­pen­ing ev­ery­where,” said Simms, a former head of the Na­tional Repub­li­can Con­gres­sional Com­mit­tee.

“I think it feeds the nar­ra­tive,” Simms said, re­fer­ring to the out­side do­na­tions. “And the re­al­ity is ide­o­log­i­cally, she is grossly out of touch with the ma­jor­ity of Ge­or­gia vot­ers. What hav­ing all this out­side money does is it re­in­forces that.”

Abrams’ back­ers note that Wash­ing­ton PACs, such as the Repub­li­can Gov­er­nors As­so­ci­a­tion, of­ten pour out­side money into Ge­or­gia to pay for ads at­tack­ing a Demo­cratic can­di­date for re­ceiv­ing out-of-state do­na­tions. Demo­cratic com­mit­tees will like­wise spend mil­lions of dollars in out-of-state do­na­tions to tar­get Kemp. It’s a sore spot for some. “The out-of-state money both­ers me,” said Don Low­ery, a 53-year-old data­base ad­min­is­tra­tor from Ma­ri­etta who de­scribes him­self as a pas­sion­ate Repub­li­can sup­porter. “Out-of-state in­ter­ests are not in line with Ge­or­gia in­ter­ests. And peo­ple in the state should drive the elec­tion.

“Imag­ine a can­di­date win­ning in Ge­or­gia that gets a lot of money from Florida and dur­ing the drought opens up the dams. That’s ex­treme, but that’s an ex­am­ple.”

Small-dol­lar surge

Abrams’ cam­paign says it has re­ceived 39,000 do­na­tions from Ge­or­gians, more than 31,000 of which were for un­der $100. The names of donors who give less than $100 to a cam­paign are not re­quired to be re­ported in fil­ings un­less they give more than one dona­tion and the to­tal adds up to $100.

Those non-item­ized do­na­tions of less than $100 ac­counted for about $1.3 million of the $6 million she had raised through the end of June, ac­cord­ing to an At­lanta Jour­nal-Con­sti­tu­tion anal­y­sis. That’s about 10 times what Kemp raised from sim­i­lar donors and al­most 16 times what Gov. Nathan Deal took in dur­ing his re-elec­tion cam­paign over the same time pe­riod.

Abrams re­ceived hun­dreds of thou­sands of dollars more from donors who chipped in more than $100 through small in­cre­ments of $5 or $10 or $20. Of those item­ized con­tri­bu­tions, Abrams re­ceived more than 3,200 do­na­tions from Ge­or­gians and about 2,600 from out­side the state.

Among the item­ized con­tri­bu­tions — large and small — she has raised more from sup­port­ers in Cal­i­for­nia, New York and Wash­ing­ton com­bined than she’s col­lected from Ge­or­gia donors. That doesn’t in­clude the $1.3 million in con­tri­bu­tions that were not item­ized and there­fore the cam­paign didn’t re­port names and ad­dresses.

Still, some of her out-of­s­tate donors say where they live shouldn’t mat­ter.

“Is Brian Kemp go­ing to say Don­ald Trump can’t cam­paign for him be­cause he’s a New Yorker? No way,” said Todd Drezner of Brook­lyn, who gave three $20 con­tri­bu­tions from April through May. “She ob­vi­ously served in the House in Ge­or­gia and won her pri­mary by a big mar­gin. It’s not like she just showed up in Ge­or­gia.”

Drezner got in­ter­ested in Abrams’ cam­paign through her so­cial me­dia ac­counts and her fre­quent men­tions in the left-lean­ing Pod Save Amer­ica pod­cast. The fre­quent fundrais­ing pleas he re­ceived once he do­nated to her cam­paign helped reel in other checks.

“It’s a cam­paign with a lot of his­tor­i­cal pos­si­bil­ity,” he said. “I cer­tainly sup­port her poli­cies over a generic Repub­li­can — and very much over Brian Kemp. I’m try­ing to do what­ever I can to help her cam­paign, since ev­ery lit­tle bit counts.”

That same sen­ti­ment com­pelled Glenda Du­gan, a re­tiree from Wal­nut Creek, Calif., to do­nate $65 to Abrams dur­ing the three months lead­ing up to June 30.

“Obama started it,” she ex­claimed, when asked about the small-dol­lar do­na­tions. “I just think it’s time we had more women in of­fice. And although I’m not black, I think we need more black women rep­re­sent­ing other black women.”

Roberta Gross­man, a Los An­ge­les film­maker, sprin­kled Abrams with seven do­na­tions over the span of about two months. The amounts were laden with sym­bol­ism: ei­ther $18 or $20.18, in honor of the midterm cy­cle.

“I’ve been fol­low­ing her and lis­ten­ing to her speak and read­ing about her,” Gross­man said. “I think she is very smart, down to earth and a ray of light in an oth­er­wise cloudy time.”

Fo­cus on the out­side

While Abrams has re­ceived far more small do­na­tions — in­side Ge­or­gia and out — than Kemp, she’s also draw­ing big money from places such as Cal­i­for­nia and New York. A re­view of cam­paign records shows she re­ceived 103 con­tri­bu­tions of $6,000 or more from out-of-state donors as of June 30. Kemp had re­ceived just five.

That will change now that Kemp has at­tracted na­tional at­ten­tion with his runoff vic­tory. Still, Repub­li­cans wasted no time af­ter the runoff to be­gin paint­ing Abrams as a bet­ter can­di­date for gov­er­nor of Cal­i­for­nia than Ge­or­gia.

“Stacey Abrams is funded by out-of-state, rad­i­cal ac­tivists who want to turn Ge­or­gia into a lawless, los­ing state like Cal­i­for­nia,” said Ryan Ma­honey, Kemp’s spokesman. “She’s propped up by (Hil­lary) Clin­ton, (Nancy) Pelosi, and Soros. Her loy­alty is to the ex­treme left and their de­struc­tive ide­ol­ogy.”

Abrams has re­sponded by em­brac­ing the na­tional at­ten­tion while still em­pha­siz­ing her home­grown roots. Asked at a re­cent event how she planned to counter that line of at­tack, she talked about her lo­cal ties.

“I’m Mis­sis­sippi-raised and Ge­or­gia-grown,” she said. “I’m a daugh­ter of the Deep South who has started small busi­nesses and has done a pretty good job with help­ing grow the econ­omy in a small way. I’m a Demo­cratic leader who has worked across the aisle. And I be­lieve that if you look at any ob­jec­tive met­ric, I’m the most qual­i­fied can­di­date for gov­er­nor.”

Simms, the vet­eran GOP strate­gist, ex­pects more in­tense scru­tiny on who is bankrolling Abrams’ cam­paign as Novem­ber nears. Even if half or more of her do­na­tions are com­ing from Ge­or­gia, Repub­li­cans will fo­cus on the por­tion that’s not.

“The nar­ra­tive is go­ing to be that she’s the dar­ling of The New York Times and Hol­ly­wood ac­tors and pro­duc­ers,” Simms said, “and I don’t think that is go­ing to sell well at all in Ge­or­gia.”

Ge­or­gia gov­er­nor can­di­dates Repub­li­can Brian Kemp and Demo­crat Stacey Abrams have ben­e­fited from money spent by groups and in­di­vid­u­als out­side Ge­or­gia.

STEPHEN B. MOR­TON / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Stacey Abrams’ (left) cam­paign for Ge­or­gia gov­er­nor has re­ceived large do­na­tions from lib­eral megadonor Ge­orge Soros and na­tional la­bor unions. But the former state House mi­nor­ity leader has also re­ceived thou­sands of small con­tri­bu­tions from donors across the coun­try, not just in Ge­or­gia.

AUDRA MELTON / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Some of the first at­tack ads aimed at Stacey Abrams af­ter Sec­re­tary of State Brian Kemp (pictured) won last month’s GOP runoff came from the Repub­li­can Gov­er­nors As­so­ci­a­tion, a Wash­ing­ton group that poured more than $9 million into the past two Ge­or­gia races for gov­er­nor.

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