Republican Donald Trump won the White House in November, and both Congress and state government are dominated by the GOP. But in Georgia, the official party apparatus continues to be awash in debt.
In January, the state party spent more than twice as much as it took in and finished the month with $38,000 in the bank and $317,000 in debt, according to new campaign finance reports.
By contrast, the state Democratic Party, which has won few if any big races in recent years, reported having $267,000 banked.
Election victors are usually in the pole position to refill their campaign coffers after the votes. And Georgia Republicans have had a string of successes, sweeping every statewide office in 2010 and 2014, cementing U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s victory in November and delivering Trump a 5-point win.
And yet the party’s financial fortunes have fallen since 2010, when it had about $2 million in the bank. And while the bank account has recovered slightly from a nadir of just $11,403 in December 2015, some Republican officials are raising sharp questions.
The race to succeed party Chairman John Padgett is already shaping up, in part, to be a referendum on his fundraising flaws. DeKalb County attorney Alex Johnson, party Vice Chairman Michael McNeely and John Watson, who was an aide to then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, have all criticized the party’s moribund finances.
“We cannot advocate fiscal responsibility while spending more than we take in,” said Johnson, who was the runner-up to Padgett in 2015. “We must lead by example if we expect to raise money and remain solvent.”
Meanwhile, the state party announced its March 13 annual fundraiser — perhaps the last chance for the Georgia GOP to revive its finances on Padgett’s watch — will feature a visit from the new chairwoman of the Republican National Committee.
Ronna Romney McDaniel will be the keynote speaker at the March 13 gala at the Georgia Aquarium. Fox News commentator and former judge Jeanine Pirro will also speak. And Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and other state leaders are set to be on hand.
Several pending legal complaints seeking hefty judgments have made it harder for the party to raise cash.
Former Georgia GOP employee Qiana Keith filed a lawsuit claiming that one of the organization’s employees humiliated her and referred to her with a racial slur. The party has fought those claims in court.
And Padgett was targeted with another complaint alleging he has reneged on more than $340,000 in outstanding legal fees owed to his former law firm that were incurred in defending himself against Keith’s lawsuit.
Party officials defend their performance.
“The GAGOP exists to support Republican lawmakers, promote conservative values, and elect our candidates up and down the ballot,” said Ryan Mahoney, the state GOP’s spokesman. “Under Chairman Padgett’s leadership, the Georgia Republican Party has funded and implemented the most robust victory programs in state party history.
“Clearly, we’ve had the necessary resources to fulfill our mission, grow our ranks and protect our ‘red state’ status.”
Party finances have dominated the discussion of potential candidates to replace Padgett.
Mike Welsh, the chairman of the Augusta-based 12th District GOP, wants to eliminate the party’s debt and build a solid cash reserve. McNeely has pledged to “re-evaluate and revive” fundraising.
And Watson said: “Republicans are supposed to balance budgets, not run deficits. This is an embarrassment for our party and seriously hurts our candidates and activists. As chairman, I’m going to fix this mess. Period.”