Money, not votes, is priority

Early in campaigns, funds mean support. In Georgia, an open Senate seat and three House seats at stake.

By Greg Bluestein gbluestein@ajc.com and Daniel Malloy dmalloy@ajc.com

Forget polls. The most important numbers this year for the hotly contested political races across Georgia are the fundraising totals.

Campaign finance disclosure reports set to be released within days are the latest signpost in a largely silent campaign that’s been waged across the state since U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss announced he wouldn’t seek re-election next year.

Financial metrics aren’t the only gauge of a candidate’s support, but the fundraising reports are an important measure of how well the candidates’ messages resonate with influential donors, out-of-state patrons and rank-and-file voters essential for expensive campaigns.

Chambliss’ retirement set the state’s Republicans into a tizzy, as four candidates have declared bids to replace him — with a fifth likely to formally enter soon — and the resulting three open House seats have drawn crowds as well.

The dominoes cascade to

state House and Senate races, as Gold Dome legislators are seeking a promotion to Washington.

With so many Republicans needing financial fuel for their campaigns, the donation-chasing is becoming increasingly competitive. Primary campaigns present influential Republicans with a dilemma, as many donors don’t want to take sides in an intraparty feud.

“It’s very tough,” said Philip Wilheit Jr., a Gainesville businessman helping to raise money for U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, a Savannah Republican seeking to replace Chambliss. “A lot of people, since there are so many congressional candidates in there who they’ve supported in the past, are sitting on the sidelines. Money is definitely tight because so many people are asking for it right now.”

Campaign dollars are particularly important in the Senate race, where the campaign to fill Chambliss’ seat could easily eclipse $10 million.

The four well-known Republicans in the race — U.S. Reps. Kingston, Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey; and former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel — are not only jockeying to best each other. They also want to send a message to other Republicans considering joining the field and to nonprofit executive Michelle Nunn, a Democrat who is weighing a run.

But they’ll have a trickle-down effect far beyond the Senate race. Gov. Nathan Deal, who faces reelection next year, hopes a hefty war chest could scare away a potential challenger from a tea party candidate on his right flank or a Democrat on his left. And the flurry of candidates running for Congress and state legislative seats will take turns trumpeting or downplaying their totals.

It’s a daunting task for political newcomers such as Gary Gerrard, a Lexington attorney seeking the congressional seat being vacated by Broun.

“It’s one thing to ask for the March of Dimes or Easter Seals; it’s another thing to ask for yourself,” Gerrard said. “I’m still in the phase of asking friends and family and acquaintances and trying to convince them that there really is an election coming up, and they really need to give money now and not a year from now.”

The political musical chairs in Savannah started with Kingston’s choice to abandon his seat. Among several Republicans looking to fill the congressional seat is state Sen. Buddy Carter. State Rep. Ben Watson then declared he would seek Carter’s seat. Watson is unchallenged — so far.

Despite all the political action on the coast, Watson said he has not had too difficult a time raising money. He said this is partly because Chambliss’ announcement raised the profile of all the races across the state in what is going to be a blockbuster political cycle.

“If it were just me running for state Senate, I would have a difficult time because people would not be aware there is a campaign going,” Watson said. “But I think most people who are tuned into the primary politics are aware that Saxby Chambliss has retired.”

In the run-up to the June 30 deadline for reporting donations, few candidates were shy about employing hyperbole in their fundraising appeals. State Rep. Ed Lindsey, seeking Gingrey’s congressional seat, said a donation of a mere $10 sends a message that “conservative reform is on the way.” And Gingrey ratcheted up the rhetoric in his plea for Senate donations.

“Now more than ever, we need a senator who will fight for the Georgia values of faith, family and freedom,” he wrote, asking activists for as little as $3. “But if we are going to save America, I need your help before midnight tonight.”

They could be just as pushy in person. At the first GOP forum at Lake Burton last week, Broun, Handel and Kingston spent the hourlong event trying to impress the 250 or so participants, many of whom were influential activists and donors from North Georgia.

“I need your vote; I need your support,” Broun said, adding quickly: “I need your check.”