You have reached your limit of free articles this month.

Enjoy unlimited access to myAJC.com

Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks.

GREAT REASONS TO SUBSCRIBE TODAY!

  • IN-DEPTH REPORTING
  • INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING
  • NEW TOPICS & COVERAGE
  • ePAPER
X

You have read of premium articles.

Get unlimited access to all of our breaking news, in-depth coverage and bonus content- exclusively for subscribers. Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks

X

Welcome to myAJC.com

This subscriber-only site gives you exclusive access to breaking news, in-depth coverage, exclusive interactives and bonus content.

You can read free articles of your choice a month that are only available on myAJC.com.

Ga. lawmakers return with pockets full of PAC cash


The Georgia General Assembly convenes next week with virtually the same cast of characters who left the Gold Dome last March.

In November all but four incumbents won their race to retain their seat, although “won” is a misleading term.

According to the Center for Money on State Politics, Georgia was one of the least competitive states in the nation, with 81 percent of incumbents running unopposed in the general election. Moreover, even the handful of open seats didn’t attract competition, with 82 percent of those seats with only one name on the November ballot.

That’s not a functioning democracy, folks.

“Georgia is always at the bottom,” said Pete Quist, chief researcher for the Montana-based institute, which produces regular reports ranking competitiveness among states. “Typically what you would like to see in a strong democracy is the ability for voters to choose.”

There are a lot of reasons why legislative races in the state favor incumbents so heavily, but money is a big part of it. Because candidates can roll over their campaign accounts from one election to the next (not every state allows this), incumbents start off with a cash advantage.

Quist said there are some broad patterns that effect monetary competitiveness. Chief among them is that incumbents don’t get their money from you or me. Instead, they rely on contributions from political action committees set up by companies or entire industries to build their war chests.

These PACs spread their money far and wide, but almost always to incumbents, Quest said.

“These groups give to the incumbents often regardless of their party,” he said. “They just want ears in the room.”

In the 2016 election cycle, lawmakers running for reelection received $14.6 million in donations from political action committees representing the most powerful special interests in the state.

The list of PACs giving more than $100,000 is topped by the associations for the trial lawyers, doctors, dentists, hospitals, bankers, Realtors and car dealers, along with big corporate names like At&T, Comcast and tobacco giant Altria. That all gave and they gave to incumbents in both parties.

Challengers received a pittance from PACs — just $387,938 statewide.

That’s stunning. I’ll do the math for you: For every dollar a challenger receives from corporate PACs, incumbents get $38.

Lopsided races dominate

The imbalance between incumbent and challenger is almost too much to fathom. Take, for instance, the House District 7 race, which pit local high school coach Sam Snider against Speaker of the House David Ralston in the Republican primary.

Combined the candidates raised $740,097, but that’s a little like saying that Nick Saban and I have combined to win five national championships, since Snider raised a little over $12,000 and Ralston picked up the rest. Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, actually out-raised three incumbent U.S. congressmen, along with everybody else in the General Assembly.

After Ralston, the top earner was Sen. Jeff Mullis, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee and one of the most powerful figures on that side of the Gold Dome. Mullis, R-Chickamauga, raised $518,611. His opponent raised .2 percent of Mullis’ total before losing in the GOP primary.

Neither Mullis nor Ralston had a November opponent, but the money kept coming anyway. Ralston raised at least $140,000 after his walkaway win in the GOP primary.

Ralston used a lot of that money to support other incumbent candidates. Records show he donated at least $91,650 to other candidates, generally the folks in the House Republican Caucus who elected him speaker.

Access to the powerful holds sway

In a state where incumbents have such a huge advantage, it begs the question why special interests keep giving them so much.

In the last election, HCA, a hospital company which has a number of small hospitals around Georgia, gave $50,000 to Georgia Leads, a 501(c)4 group run by Gov. Nathan Deal’s former campaign manager Tom Willis, that supported Deal’s proposed state takeover plan for failing school.

What does HCA care about Deal’s opportunity school district plan? Nothing, probably. They do care about the re-authorization of the hospital “bed tax” in this coming session, a fee imposed by the state to draw down more Medicaid funding, which is redistributed to hospitals.

Along with supporting Gov. Deal’s education initiative, HCA contributed $25,000 each to the state Democratic Party and the House GOP Trust. The hospital company also sent $25,000 to Ralston’s Conservative Leadership Fund and another $10,000 to Georgia Next, a PAC run by House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta.

HCA topped off their giving with $2,500 contributions to top Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate, including chairmen of both of the Rules committees, who determine which bills move to a floor vote. Legislative leaders in both parties have said re-authorization of the fee is a top priority.

HCA’s strategy is not unique.

Depending on the year or the issues involved, all manner of special interests dole out contributions to the most influential incumbents in the House and Senate as part of an overall strategy to influence outcomes during the legislative session. There is nothing illegal about it.

But in Georgia the evidence suggests it has contributed to a system where challengers find themselves looking up a steep hill of cash if they want to unseat an incumbent politician.

As AJC Watchdog, I’ll be writing about public officials, good governance and the way your tax dollars are spent. Help me out. What needs exposing in your community? Contact me at cjoyner@ajc.com.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Georgia Politics

Georgia lawmaker uses power of the purse to influence colleges
Georgia lawmaker uses power of the purse to influence colleges

Some call him the 20th member of the Board of Regents. He regularly uses his political power to influence policies he doesn’t like at Georgia’s colleges and universities, whether they be public or private. Kennesaw State, Georgia Tech, Georgia Gwinnett and Emory have all felt his wrath. He is Earl Ehrhart, a veteran state House member whose...
Early voting in Georgia’s 6th District starts Tuesday
Early voting in Georgia’s 6th District starts Tuesday

Early in-person voting starts Tuesday in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, kicking off the official countdown to the June 20 runoff between Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff. The nationally watched race to replace former U.S. Rep. Tom Price covers a district that includes parts of Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties. Only voters...
How Trump is already shaking up the Georgia governor’s race
How Trump is already shaking up the Georgia governor’s race

President Donald Trump is shaking up the emerging race for Georgia governor, forcing Republicans to gamble on how closely to tie themselves to his presidency – and speeding up plans for Democrats who think they have a tantalizing opportunity to exploit his setbacks. A fight is already under way on the GOP side of the ticket between candidates...
Redistricting gives GOP key to political power in Georgia
Redistricting gives GOP key to political power in Georgia

Once every decade, a peculiar spectacle occupies Georgia’s General Assembly. It’s a time when lawmakers pay little heed to lobbyists, much less constituents. Their focus instead becomes much more primal: protecting themselves, undermining their enemies, and maximizing the strength of their political parties. These internecine struggles...
Both sides see lessons for Georgia’s 6th District from Montana election
Both sides see lessons for Georgia’s 6th District from Montana election

Republicans in Atlanta’s northern suburbs can sleep just a little bit easier after GOP candidate Greg Gianforte avoided electoral disaster here Thursday evening. But the former technology executive’s single-digit victory in this vast state of only 1 million people - which backed Donald Trump for president by more than 20 percentage points...
More Stories