In state’s hottest congressional districts, small contributions play big

By Tom Baxter

Stretched just a little, you could describe the fundraising in the emerging rematch between U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath and Karen Handel in gladiatorial terms.

McBath has the long net. The first-term Democrat who unseated Handel last year raising $482,000 in her first-quarter filing with the Federal Election Commission. A significant part of this haul came from small donations, coordinated through online fundraising platforms like ActBlue.

Handel has the short, sharp sword. She got into the race to win back her 6th District seat late in the cycle, and raised $259,000 in just a few days. Only three incumbent Georgia Republican House members, Drew Ferguson, Tom Graves and Doug Collins, raised more money in the entire quarter. Some of the most important of those dollars came from congressional and Georgia Republican leaders.

She’ll need that kind of institutional strength to get back in a race with McBath, because a primary battle is already assured. State Sen. Brandon Beach got in the 2020 race early in the year, and raised $124,000 for the quarter. The Republican legislator would have been from fundraising for a state race during the legislative session but not for a federal race.

You can expect these to be the first spring shoots in what will become a lush garden of fundraising green as 2020 nears. The 6th District is on the National Republican Congressional Committee’s list of 55 districts it will be targeting in the upcoming election, just as the 7th District next door, left open by the departure of Republican Rob Woodall, is on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s list of 33 House districts it will spotlight. These two districts are sure to account for the lion’s share money spent on congressional races in Georgia next year. Both could end up on the short list of next year’s most expensive races.

Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, who lost Woodall in 2018 by less than 450 votes, raised $371,000 for next year’s race in the 7th District. Nabilah Islam, a Lawrenceville Democrat who has worked in several races, raised $102,000, establishing herself as the Democrat likeliest to give Bourdeaux a primary run for this coveted seat.
While there’s not much in the way of money to look at yet, a Republican race is also taking shape in the 7th. Lynne Homrich, a former Home Depot human resources VP and founder of a non-profit called She’s a 10, has joined former Falcons running back Joe Profit in the primary race. State Sen. Renee Unterman is taking her time, but is expected to join this field.

A short time after Homrich put up her first campaign video, the Bourdeaux campaign was out with an email warning that the Republican, who recently moved into the district, was a self-funder and “strongly pro-Trump,” and inviting supporters to chip in amounts from $25 up. That’s the new normal, not worth mentioning except as an example of how fundraising, particularly in the Democratic Party, has been transformed through the internet.

Some of the new Democratic House members who took pledges not to accept money from corporate political action committees are being advised by their elders to abandon their commitment. But so far, Democrats who have taken the pledge are outpacing those newcomers who turned it down.

Small donations can fund big campaigns, and as an antidote to the ills of big-money politics that is something to be celebrated. No longer is it a given that a few will write big checks to pay for the ads that will be seen by many.

But in exchange, politics is becoming increasingly like a telethon that never ends, in which the fundraising pitches become campaign ads in themselves, regularly stoking the base at a few dollars a pop. Quarterly fundraising reports used to be about how much the contributions added up to. Now they’re also about how many contributions made up that total, as a measure of core support.

The problem with that is that the automation of the fundraising process means the small donations can come from anywhere. They’re no longer a reliable indicator of grassroots voting strength. In any case, these days small, where ever it comes from, is speaking large.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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