Turnout will be the deciding factor in a Georgia congressional race that has been flooded with money from national groups, super PACs, and individuals from across the country.
More than $31 million has so far flooded a race in Georgia’s Congressional District 6 between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel, according to disclosures available May 30. Less than $1 million, or 3.2 percent, of that comes from inside Georgia.
The rest represents outside dollars nearly matched by the level of national attention the race has garnered.
The district, nestled in Atlanta’s mostly white, conservative-leaning northwestern suburbs, is home to the special election that will be decided on June 20 after no candidate in the April 18 open race between Republican, Democratic, and Independent candidates was able to hit the threshold—50 percent of votes—needed to stop a runoff.
Charles S. Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, told Rewire in a May 26 email that outside spending has changed the dynamics of the race. “If the only funding came locally, this would be an entirely different contest—a contest rather than an event. A Republican would almost certainly win and the national media would not care. Even the Atlanta media would not give it front page coverage.”
“Without the national attention and the cornucopia of dollars, Ossoff would probably not have made the runoff much less be neck-and-neck with Handel,” Bullock said.
Ossoff’s campaign raked in more than $10.5 million, while Handel’s campaign war chest amounted to a little more than $400,000, according to campaign finance reports filed for the April 6 deadline. These numbers were reported before the April 18 special election.
Since then, President Trump and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) have stumped for Handel in Georgia, and Vice President Mike Pence is expected to do the same this month. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the Ossoff campaign brought in an additional $6.9 million in April, solely through the national fundraising platform ActBlue. The next round of filings won’t be available until June 8.
The big spending, however, has come from super PACs and party-affiliated groups buying ad time and sending out mailers independent of the candidates. According to Federal Elections Commission data available through May 25, these groups have spent $20.5 million on the race, along with donations made to the candidates, and that number is expected to increase as the June 20 election day approaches.
More than half that money, nearly $12.1 million, has been spent opposing Ossoff, almost entirely from groups based out of the Washington, D.C. area. The Congressional Leadership Fund and the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), a group dedicated to growing the Republican’s share of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, are responsible for 95 percent of the opposition spending by outside groups. Just under $1 million has been spent by outside groups in support of his candidacy.
Handel’s campaign has garnered much less attention from outside groups. A total of $4.7 million has been spent in opposition to her campaign, mostly from D.C. area groups. The NRCC’s counterpart, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is responsible for nearly 90 percent of the opposition dollars.
PAC expenditures in support of Handel total about $2.7 million, a group called Ending Spending, Inc., a pro-austerity PAC started by the founder of TD Ameritrade, is responsible for about half of that. The NRCC and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have been the next biggest spenders, although neither have topped $1 million in spending yet.
The New York Times reported in May that Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition had begun to get involved in the race. The organization, based in Duluth. just outside of the sixth district, is a religious right group with ties to the Trump administration. Vice President Pence will be the keynote speaker at their annual gala later this month.
Jason Shepherd, who recently was elected in March to serve as the Chairman of the Cobb County GOP, told Rewire in a May 27 email that the national attention is helping to activate the conservative base in the district; Cobb county is one of three counties that are partially included in Georgia’s Congressional District 6, which also includes Fulton and DeKalb counties.
“I believe the national attention has helped awaken the GOP base. With so much money coming in, the GOP voters realized this election couldn’t be taken for granted, and turned out in record numbers for a special election,” Shepherd wrote.
Cobb County elected Hillary Clinton over Trump in the most recent presidential election, an upset that likely helped Shepherd unseat his predecessor to become chairman. Trump won the district by a razor thin margin, beating Clinton by 1 point.
“In past years, I believe the Party took it for granted that Cobb was a solid Republican County. As a result, many, including many in our leadership, let the gears of the grassroots machine become rusty. Hillary Clinton’s plurality win was a wake-up call to many,” Shepherd said.
A recent poll conducted by Survey USA for the NBC affiliate 11Alive showed Ossoff leading Handel 51 to 44, a difference larger than the margin of error. Most recent polling has shown the candidates locked in a tight race.
Turnout is likely to be the deciding factor, a sentiment echoed by Bullock and Shepherd.
“The marginal benefit of yet another ad or mail piece or knock on the door is approaching zero. But in a contest expected to be close reaching just a few more voters might determine the outcome,” Bullock wrote. “One major Atlanta channel, in order to cash in on the bonanza, has added another half hour news show on which to sell political ads.”
Susannah Scott, a co-founder of the North DeKalb Huddle, one of the “resistance” groups that sprung up after Trump’s election, said enthusiasm surrounding the race won’t matter if voters don’t show up to cast ballots.
“I think it’s going to come down to do people actually go out to the polls and vote, do they send in their absentee ballot, do they show up for early voting or on the day [of the election],” Scott said in an interview with Rewire.
There is already evidence of voter enthusiasm. The district has added almost 8,000 people to its voter rolls ahead of the June runoff. Since early voting began in the race this week, almost “half as many voters have cast ballots … than voted during the entire three-week early voting period ahead the original April 18 special election,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
While Shepherd is seeing a conservative base getting re-activated, Scott pointed to a large progressive population that has been a silent minority but is now getting involved.
“There’s a lot more liberals in the district than have previously been vocal,” Scott said. “It’s just as important if not more important than the outside money and the outside interest.”