Georgia’s billion-dollar runoffs

An unprecedented stream of cash donations and independent expenditures from political action groups is pouring into the Peach State

As Democrats and Republicans vie for control of the Senate ahead of Georgia’s two highly consequential runoff elections, an unprecedented stream of cash donations and independent expenditures from political action groups is pouring into the Peach State — a deluge so great that some analysts have predicted a staggering $1 billion could be spent across the four campaigns by the time polls close on January 5.

Already, more than $500 million in political advertising has blanketed the state in recent weeks. And the money continues to flow, as Georgia voters are bombarded with TV and radio ads, campaign mailers, solicitation emails, phone calls and text messages that have drowned out virtually every other concern unrelated to the election. “We haven’t been forced to look at any new car ads or new truck ads,” said Steve Oppenheimer, a pro-Israel activist in Atlanta. “They’re all political ads.”

In many ways, the exorbitant price tag is to be expected given that there are no remaining political races, on top of a pandemic that halted other campaign expenditures like field offices and door-to-door canvassers. Plus, the stakes couldn’t be higher as Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue fight to defend their seats — and the GOP’s slim Senate majority — from Democratic challengers Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

But following a recent election cycle that included some of the most expensive races of all time — and in which many losing candidates vastly outspent their opponents — a nagging question hovers over the runoffs: Is all this money really necessary?

That consideration may seem beside the point in a political environment that allows outside groups to spend unlimited sums of money thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling. And yet, political advertising can reach a limit at which it loses its effectiveness, according to Brendan Quinn, outreach and social media manager at the Center for Responsive Politics, a left-wing research group. 

“It reaches a saturation point,” Quinn said. “If you’re seeing so many ads from the same politician, eventually you’re going to be sick of them.”

On the other side of the equation, an influx of political ad spending can lead to a pricier media landscape that freezes out smaller, third-party groups that are seeking air time but can’t afford to buy in.

“I’ve never seen the price of a commercial this expensive in any race in the 30 years I’ve been doing this,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which has raised close to $700,000 for Loeffler and Perdue through a PAC portal on its website. 

When Brooks recently inquired about TV rates in Georgia, the prices were so gouged that he concluded it would be best to stick with buying ad space in print newspapers. That was in contrast to his experience purchasing ad time in South Florida during the general election, he said, when RJC paid $3.5 million to get on the air. In Atlanta, however, a commensurate ad buy was going for $8 million. “It’s just insane,” he said.

President-elect Joe Biden, center, appears at a drive-in rally for Georgia Democratic candidates for Senate Raphael Warnock, left, and Jon Ossoff in Atlanta on Dec. 15. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Michael Adler, a Miami-based developer and Democratic bundler, acknowledged that the amount of money flowing into the Georgia races was jarring to behold, even as he is actively raising funds himself. “A couple of hundred million from November to January is a ridiculous amount of money to have to be spent,” he scoffed in an interview with Jewish Insider.

Still, such misgivings don’t seem to have influenced the cost-benefit analysis associated with political spending, even as it has become increasingly apparent that a well-padded war chest does not always translate to electoral success. 

In November, several formidable Democratic candidates were defeated despite having raked in unprecedented sums of cash — the most prominent example being Jaime Harrison, the Senate candidate in South Carolina who raised upwards of $100 million yet still came short of unseating Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who was underfunded by comparison.

Harrison is now drawing on his vast grassroots network as well as his relationships with high-dollar fundraisers to help raise money in Georgia, having racked up a total of $750,000 on behalf of the Democratic candidates, according to Joshua Karp, a Harrison aide who also advises Ossoff’s campaign. 

Andrew Weinstein, an attorney and Democratic donor in Coral Springs, Fla., argues that the upcoming runoffs differ from the general election, pointing out that the races in which well-financed Democrats lost took place in historically red states like North Carolina and Maine. Because Joe Biden flipped Georgia — becoming the first Democratic presidential nominee to take the Peach State since 1992 — donors still feel energized, Weinstein told JI.

“Given the fact that the Democrats know we can win there and the strengths of the candidates that we have,” Weinstein added, “I think people are optimistic about our chances of being successful, and folks want to do everything they can.”

Well, not everyone. “I do have donor’s fatigue,” said Martin Peretz, the former owner of The New Republic and a Democratic benefactor who supports pro-Israel causes, noting that he has not given any money to Ossoff or Warnock despite a persistent effort to convince him otherwise. “I must get 50 emails from the Democrats a day,” he sighed. 

But Peretz is less inclined to get involved in these races because he is unexcited by the candidates. While Peretz is ambivalent about Ossoff — a 33-year-old documentary filmmaker who ran for Congress three years ago in what was then the most expensive House race in American history — he regards Warnock with some suspicion because of his past controversial statements on Israel.

In a 2018 sermon, Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, accused Israel of shooting non-violent Palestinian protesters “like birds of prey.” And last year, the reverend signed his name to a statement likening Israeli control of the West Bank to the “military occupation of Namibia by apartheid South Africa.”

Though Warnock has sought to dispel accusations that he is anti-Israel, emphasizing his support for the Jewish state in an editorial last month, his past comments have been used against him in a litany of attack ads from Loeffler’s campaign, as she has sought to brand him as hostile to the Jewish state.

Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Raphael Warnock during a rally with supporters at the Cobb Civic Center on Sunday, Nov.15, 2020, in Marietta, Ga. (John Amis/Atlanta Journal Constitution via AP)

“If elected, my opponent, Raphael Warnock, would add yet another voice to the anti-Israel cadre in Congress,” Loeffler wrote in a letter addressed to the Jewish community that her campaign shared with JI, “posing a significant threat not only to America’s longstanding relationship with Israel, but to [the] Jewish community across our country.”

Loeffler’s campaign isn’t the only one targeting Warnock in this fashion. On Wednesday, Christians United for Israel’s Action Fund released an attack ad whose narrator alleges that Warnock is “preaching a gospel of hate” and “lying about the Jewish state.” The six-figure ad buy, distributed on multiple digital platforms, is only the third ad ever released by the pro-Israel group — an indication of how seriously the pastor’s comments have been taken by some organizations. More than 400,000 of CUFI’s 10 million members live in Georgia, according to a spokesperson.

That Israel has emerged as a wedge issue is unusual for an election in Georgia, said Charles S. Bullock III, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs. But it makes sense that it has become a topic of debate now, he posited, given the state’s sizable population of evangelicals who care about Israel and are likely to find Warnock’s past statements offensive. 

“This is a strong appeal not to convert or win over white evangelicals but to move them to go and vote,” Bullock said. 

Meanwhile, liberal Jewish groups across the country have jumped to Warnock’s defense. Democratic Majority for Israel endorsed Warnock on December 9 and plans to run a digital ad campaign “highlighting the candidate’s pro-Israel positions,” according to DMFI president and CEO Mark Mellman, who declined to reveal how much the ad buy would cost and when it would begin, citing “strategic reasons.” DMFI has also endorsed Ossoff. 

The Jewish Democratic Council of America is engaged in an “aggressive” campaign to target approximately 86,000 Jewish voters in Georgia, said Halie Soifer, JDCA’s CEO — an effort that includes direct mailers, phone banking, texting and ads. In early December, the group released a 30-second digital ad, narrated by Warnock and emphasizing his positive relationship with the Jewish community. “I’ve enjoyed wonderful relationships across the years with my Jewish sisters and brothers,” Warnock says in the voiceover, “standing up for the dignity of ordinary people.”

Another JDCA spot is critical of Perdue, who was accused of running an antisemitic Facebook ad that appeared to have elongated Ossoff’s nose. (Ossoff is Jewish.) 

Pro-Israel America, on the other hand, has endorsed Perdue. According to executive director Jeff Mendelsohn, the group has rallied its grassroots supporters to raise more than $40,000 for the senator this cycle, “and we are engaging in a very targeted $20,000 campaign to build support and turn out the vote.”

Several other Jewish groups are also involved in the runoffs. JStreet’s PAC, for one, has raised more than $500,000 for the two Georgia Senate races, $385,000 of which it has donated directly to Warnock and Ossoff, according to communications director Logan Bayroff. The rest has gone to Fair Fight, the voting rights organization founded by Stacey Abrams that has been deeply engaged in an intensive turnout effort ahead of the close election. 

Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) addresses the 2016 CPAC conference in Maryland. (Gage Skidmore)

GOP state treasurer Joseph Brannan said his party is likewise working to do the same. “We have a very strong ground game, over 1,000 people in one form or another of paid staff, and then thousands of volunteers,” he told JI. “Obviously, the air game is the easiest place to go because you can cover the most people, assuming they’re watching or listening.”

“I think that the advertising is playing a really big role in communicating to voters that this is a big deal and that things matter,” said election analyst David Shor. “The only problem is that that’s probably happening roughly equally on both sides.”

Even out-of-state local organizations that wouldn’t normally get involved in national politics have entered the fray, underscoring the various channels through which money is flowing into the races. Brett Goldman, co-founder and board member of Democratic Jewish Outreach Pennsylvania, said his organization has raised $4,000 in support of Ossoff and Warnock and is in the process of mailing 11,000 postcards to Georgia voters ahead of the runoff early next month.

“Money matters,” said Joe Sandler, a Democratic attorney whose firm represents Fair Fight. “Neither side wants to waste a penny of it.” But the issue, he added, “is how it’s spent.”

Brett Kappel, who specializes in campaign finance law, agreed with that assessment. “The total amount of money spent on advertising isn’t that informative,” he said, noting that it’s the way in which those advertising dollars are used that may impact the electoral result. “Campaigns can spend money on persuasion ads that seek to define the candidate or they spend money trying to boost turnout,” he said. “Most campaigns do both.”

Still, Charlie Spies, a Republican attorney and an expert in political fundraising, adds the caveat that advertising on “broadcast television does have a diminishing return at some point,” especially amid Georgia’s saturated advertising atmosphere.

But in a charged political climate, the glut of ad money makes sense, even if it may ultimately be excessive, according to Adam Bonin, a political law attorney in Philadelphia. “Nothing motivates spending quite like a good villain,” he said.

Marc Rod contributed additional reporting.

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