U.S. SENATE RACE

Donations pile up for 2 candidates

Fundraising tally shows many GOP backers are hedging their bets.

By Greg Bluestein gbluestein@ajc.com

The five big-name Republicans running for the U.S. Senate have struggled so far to distinguish themselves on policy issues. But fundraising results released this week are beginning to show a divide on a different crucial measure: donor support.

U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston and businessman David Perdue have emerged as potent fundraisers, each tallying about $800,000 this quarter, while their three top rivals have lagged. That backing is crucial in a race where it will cost millions to saturate the airwaves with messaging that could be the difference between forcing a runoff or being a footnote.

The early results also show a reluctance among some Republicans to support a single candidate, as dozens of influential donors and political action committees have hedged their bets among multiple candidates. It also underscores how many in the party’s base

— both establishment leaders and grass-roots supporters — have yet to make up their mind seven months before the primary.

“As it stands, this race is completely wide open,” said Joel McElhannon, a GOP strategist who is unaffiliated with any of the campaigns.

He said the turmoil highlights how another potential candidate, Atlanta businesswoman Kelly Loeffler, could again “change the dynamics” if she jumps in.

Looming ahead for the GOP victor is a likely showdown with Democrat Michelle Nunn, a nonprofit executive who boasts her own impressive fundraising tally in her first test. The political novice and daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn raised $1.7 million, partly by tapping her nationwide network in the nonprofit world.

That type of showing should help her fend off a high-profile primary opponent — she already faces several lesser-known opponents — and prove she’s not a “token candidate,” said Steve Anthony, a Georgia State University political science professor and past executive director of the Democratic Party of Georgia.

“Between her name and all that money, it’s going to be tough to beat her in the primary,” Anthony said. “And in terms of winning the race in the fall, now she has the opportunity to say she’s not a sacrificial lamb.”

Kingston remained the overall fundraising leader with $2.9 million on hand after raising $800,000 this quarter. The Savannah lawmaker is looking to define himself to a wider audience while fending off attacks from conservative groups eager to raise questions about his past as an influential House appropriations guru.

Perdue, a former Dollar General chief executive, is confronting the same problem of name recognition. He pumped $1 million of his own money into the campaign but raised an additional $800,000, a respectable showing for a political newcomer. He may be forced to dig deeper into his pockets to introduce himself to voters more familiar with his cousin, former Gov. Sonny Per-due.

“Even considering his personal contribution, it’s still impressive,” said Kerwin Swint, a Kennesaw State University political scientist. “The question is, can he keep raising that kind of cash, or is it a one-time thing?”

It was a rougher quarter for former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel and U.S. Reps. Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun, who all raised less than $300,000. Handel has roughly $310,000 left to spend while Broun has $450,000 in the bank — hardly enough to run sustained TV ads in the run-up to the May 20 primary.

Both, however, have other built-in advantages. Handel is the only candidate with a statewide election victory, and she’ll look to that base for support next year. Broun, meanwhile, enjoys support from tea party heroes such as Ron Paul, the Texas libertarian.

Gingrey’s in better financial shape; he’s got $2.6 million in his campaign treasury after transferring funds from his congressional account. Yet he must confront what McElhannon called a “collapse of support” among GOP donors as his rivals try to claim the mantle as the most conservative candidate in the running.

All the candidates face the same heady task of trying to pry support from each other. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review found dozens of donors, corporations and industry groups who have given tens of thousands of dollars to multiple Republican candidates this year. One of them, Tom Hensley, sums up the tough task ahead.

“It’s unfortunate that several of my friends are running and I’m caught in an absolutely tough bind,” said Hensley, a Baldwin poultry executive who donated to both Kingston and Broun.

“They are both good men, and the voters will have a tough choice. So will I.”