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Kemp racing to stay competitive with Abrams in fundraising

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp should have no problem fundraising — and in some ways, he doesn’t. He locked up in-state donors in the GOP primary even after former president Donald Trump recruited a challenger. And so far, he has brought in more than $22 million in his bid for reelection — already more than what he raised in the whole 2018 cycle.

But compared to the fundraising skills of his Democratic challenger, Stacey Abrams, Kemp’s just collecting pocket change.

This year’s gubernatorial race is a rematch between Kemp and Abrams. Abrams won the fundraising race in 2018, but Kemp took Georgia’s governor’s mansion by just 55,000 votes. The fiery contest and close margin of victory transformed Abrams from an also-ran to a rising star in the Democratic Party.

That means that when new fundraising numbers are released in a few days, the disclosures are likely to show Abrams taking a sizable lead over Kemp. So the incumbent has been accelerating his fundraising efforts to keep pace as much as possible.

Abrams officially joined the race last December — about nine months later than the incumbent governor — but was only $1.6 million behind him in fundraising, according to financial disclosure forms for each campaign committee filed in March. By now, Abrams may have already overtaken Kemp; the second quarter filing period ended on June 30, and results will be released in early July.

“Stacey Abrams has always been an elite fundraiser. And I don’t think that that dynamic is going to change,” said Chip Lake, a veteran Georgia GOP consultant. “Look, he [Kemp] doesn’t have to outspend Stacey Abrams, but he can’t get blown out of the water.”

In addition to the advantage of incumbency, Kemp actually emerged stronger after his bitter primary race. Trump’s rage at Kemp for not backing his false claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent threatened to split the party, but Kemp’s smashing victory over Trump-endorsed David Perdue in May gave the governor a jolt heading toward the general election.

But to keep up with the velocity of Abrams’ fundraising, Kemp’s team is expanding its contacts with donors outside of Georgia who can contribute six-figure checks to his leadership PAC, and it’s paying several fundraising consultants to get the job done.

“We have entered this general election, fully aware that we will be out-raised and out-spent,” said Cody Hall, Kemp’s spokesperson. “But you know, it’s a matter of how much we can keep pace, and we feel confident about that.”

Hall added that fundraising more nationally is something that Kemp could have done better in 2018 and has made a priority now.

That includes in-person pitches to some of the biggest-name donors in the party. Last October, Kemp flew out to Wisconsin to meet Liz Uihlein, the billionaire CEO of shipping giant Uline, which has a campus in Braselton, Georgia, northeast of Atlanta.

Uihlein political adviser Tony Povkovich told POLITICO that the two discussed their families, voter integrity, the state’s recovery from Covid and the Port of Savannah. Afterward, Uihlein wrote Kemp two checks: one for $250,000 in January and another for $150,000 in April, according to the financial disclosure forms for Kemp’s PAC, Georgians First Leadership PAC.

Some of the PAC’s largest donations have come from national businesses, like Uline, that have operations in Georgia, according to the most recent financial disclosure forms. One of them is Majestic Realty, a private development company for commercial real estate based in California with a regional office in Atlanta, which gave Kemp $250,000 last November.

Another is SDH Management Service, a two-year-old LLC connected to Brett Steele, the vice president and chief legal officer of Smith Douglas Homes, a Woodstock, Ga.-based homebuilding company that works throughout the Southeast. SDH sent the PAC $150,000 in July 2021.

Kemp has also attracted national figures at fundraisers — most notably, former president George W. Bush, who chipped in $5,000 at an event in Texas.

“When you’re in a gunfight, you don’t care where your ammo was manufactured, you just need it,” said John Watson, the Georgia GOP chair during the 2018 election cycle. “And so because of that, there will be and will continue to be an aggressive outreach to national donors and small donor programs. I anticipate that will be absolutely a critical part of [Kemp’s] overall finance plan.”

To boost his donation numbers against Abrams, Kemp’s campaign has also retained the services of several financial consulting firms. Campaign Consulting Group has been handling in-state fundraising, according to Tate Mitchell, Kemp’s campaign press secretary. Kemp’s team has also paid for help from Washington, D.C.-based firms Dogwood Consulting Group, which has worked with the Senate Leadership Fund, and Briarwood Strategies, which has been hired by the Scalise Leadership Fund and Drew Ferguson for Congress this cycle and last, for fundraising consulting, according to disclosures to the Federal Elections Commission.

Leadership PACs are new to this election cycle in Georgia. For the first time, gubernatorial candidates can run leadership PACS that accept unlimited donations and coordinate directly with the candidates in addition to their main campaign committees. Kemp has already raised an additional $4.7 million through this new campaign tool.

It’s not yet known how much Abrams’ leadership PAC has brought in. Abrams launched her PAC in March but was forced to halt contributions until she won the primary in May and became the Democratic Party’s official gubernatorial nominee; because he is the incumbent, the law permitted Kemp to fundraise for his PAC even before the primary.

Based on early disclosures filed from her contributors, Abrams has at least $3.5 million: $1 million of which came from Democracy II, a PAC run by liberal mega-donor George Soros; $1 million from the Democratic Governors Association; and $1.5 million from Fair Fight Inc, the political action committee arm of the non-profit organization that Abrams founded in 2018.

Her campaign committee has about $20.8 million — slightly behind Kemp’s campaign committee, although she’s been raising money for less than half the time. She also paused fundraising after the Supreme Court’s draft decision on abortion became public to support reproductive rights groups.

The razor-thin margins for Georgia elections has made fundraising even more competitive since the last gubernatorial election. Joe Biden won the state in his presidential campaign by fewer than 12,000 votes. Last cycle’s Senate races were won by Democrats Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock by 50,000 and 90,000 votes, respectively, in runoff elections. And all four Senate candidates on the ballot smashed records for fundraising; In a single two-month reporting period before the election, the candidates brought in more than $340 million combined.

Abrams once said that Georgia was a “cheap date” when persuading Democrats to campaign there ahead of the 2020 General Election. She was right about the opportunity to win more Democratic officeholders, as seen in the 2020 cycle’s results, but those results came with high costs, and this year’s races are expected to continue the trend.

“Every cycle gets more expensive. And I think this one will be more expensive than the last — as is every future election cycle,” Watson said. “So whatever the costs were before, I can only guarantee you one thing: it’ll be more this time.”

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