The top contenders for Georgia’s wide-open race for governor faced a crucial test Monday as they reported how much money they’ve collected for their campaigns, an early gauge of their popularity in the crowded contest to succeed a term-limited Gov. Nathan Deal.
The money race isn’t everything, and plenty of candidates with eye-popping financial figures have faltered (See: Jon Ossoff and John Oxendine). But it’s an indicator of the depth of their support — and it sends a message to influential activists and donors still waiting to pick a side in the jumbled race.
Many of the candidates have devoted much of the past two months to grueling calls pleading donors for cash and rounds of rubber-chicken dinners on the fundraising circuit. Some were eager to trumpet their numbers; others downplayed the figures.
Republican Lt. Gov. Casey hoped big reports proved he was the candidate to beat; his rivals hoped their hauls show they can be competitive. Cagle topped the field by raking in about $2.7 million overall; his three GOP rivals all surpassed the $1 million mark, though one did it with a hefty loan.
On the Democratic side, two state legislators — former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and state Rep. Stacey Evans — were almost evenly matched. Abrams had a slight fundraising edge, while Evans had more cash on hand.
The race could wind up being the most expensive gubernatorial contest in Georgia history, and it’s already outpacing the last contest for an open governor’s seat.
In July 2009, the race for governor had been underway for roughly a year and the seven leading candidates had collected at least $6.2 million. In this contest, which jump-started in late March, candidates have already raised or loaned themselves more than $7.4 million.
The reports set a high hurdle for anyone else seeking to make a late splash. A string of well-known politicians have recently announced they won’t run, and the strength of these reports sets a lofty bar for other would-be contenders – unless they have the financial fortitude to finance their own campaigns.
Here’s a breakdown of each report:
Former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D)
The Atlanta Democrat raised about $540,000 for her bid for Georgia governor. But her campaign pointed as much to another number on her report: She netted donations from 3,000 contributors, and half were for less than $25.
Abrams, who formally entered the race in early June, has received a flood of national attention for her run. She would be the first black governor in Georgia — and the first black female governor in the nation.
The Democrat has sought early funding from national sources, including a New York fundraiser hosted by Alexander Soros, the son of billionaire Democratic mega-donor George Soros. The Soros family gave her about $60,000 of her total, and more than half of her donors came from out of state.
The Democrat’s campaign said in a statement that she has spent the opening weeks hiring staff, traveling across the state and building a get-out-the-vote effort. More than half of her donations — about $320,000 — has already been spent, including roughly $120,000 on staff salary and travel.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (R)
The presumptive GOP front-runner needed a big fundraising report — and he got it.
Cagle raised more than $2.7 million from about 1,200 donors. His bid will also benefit from another fat bank account: The Georgia Conservatives Fund, a fund long run by Cagle’s top allies but with no official link to his campaign, has about $2.5 million at its disposal.
Cagle has won statewide office three times and has been plotting a run for governor for nearly a decade. His campaign has sought to dispel talk that he’s vulnerable, and his backers said the depth of his support proves he’s the candidate to beat.
“Every other candidate’s strategy is predicated on Cagle faltering,” said Jay Morgan, a lobbyist and former executive director of the Georgia GOP. “He has just shown that he will be a stronger candidate than any of them anticipated.”
State Rep. Stacey Evans (D)
Evans doesn’t have the same national profile of her Democratic rival, but Monday’s report showed the Smyrna Democrat could keep pace in the hunt for campaign dollars.
Evans raised more than $410,000 in roughly one month since announcing her campaign for governor, collecting donations at roughly twice the rate as her adversary. And she ended June with about $360,000 cash on hand — well above the $220,000 that Abrams reported.
The vast majority of Evans’ donors — about 87 percent — reside in Georgia. About a dozen fellow state legislators donated to her campaign, as did several prominent Democrats. Among them: former Gov. Roy Barnes, who combined with his law firm to donate $21,000.
State Sen. Hunter Hill (R)
The Smyrna Republican aimed to prove he’s a top-tier candidate in the first fundraising report, and he hopes a seven-figure take did just that.
The state senator said he’s raised more than $1 million in the governor’s race, adding in a statement that his fundraising shows that the state is ready for “a conservative outsider to change the way state government works.”
Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R)
Kemp has sought to position himself as the top Republican rival to Cagle, and a strong fundraising report put him within striking distance of the lieutenant governor.
The first candidate to formally announce for governor, Kemp topped $1.7 million from about 1,600 donors. He’s running as a pro-Donald Trump candidate with a “Georgia First” message .
The Athens businessman leaned on a network he’s built in northeast Georgia and the reputation he’s built over two terms as Georgia’s top elections official to round out his fundraising. He reported spending about $200,000 of his haul, and he had $1.5 million left in the tank.
State Sen. Michael Williams (R)
Williams dipped deep into his own piggy bank to launch his campaign, loaning himself $1 million to fuel his bid for governor.
The Cumming entrepreneur has raised roughly $50,000 in additional funds since announcing a month ago, and his campaign said the average contribution was for less than $200.
Williams is vying to be the most ardent Trump supporter in the governor’s race — he was a co-chairman of the president’s Georgia campaign — and is likely to pump more cash from his personal bank account into the contest.
Georgia’s 2018 race for governor has already begun. Follow The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s coverage at http://www.myAJC.com/politics.