The most expensive election in U.S. history is set to culminate with two months of the most expensive campaigning that the country has ever seen in one state. The stakes couldn’t be higher since if Democrats win both of Georgia’s Senate seats in a January runoff, they will gain control of the chamber—and hand unified control of government to President-elect Joe Biden.
Within the party, there’s no deficit of enthusiasm for the opportunity to oust two GOP senators, elect Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, and take the Senate. But that task will require raising a historic sum of money to compete with Republicans, who intend to go all-out to inundate Georgia’s airwaves, online platforms, roadsides and lawns with campaign messaging.
But the challenge comes at the end of a grueling election cycle in which Democratic donors themselves gave at unprecedented levels to elect Biden and to flip the Senate. From North Carolina to Texas to Maine, however, those efforts failed to yield the returns Democratic donors and fundraisers were hoping for. Now, it’s an open question whether the people who usually fund Democratic campaign operations—and did so at historic levels already this year—are ready to empty their wallets again in hopes of going two for two in Georgia.
“Exhaustion is real,” one Democratic strategist said of donors. “For a lot of the presidential donors, we are not done with the presidential yet, there’s the Fight Fund, there’s the transition, there’s the inauguration—what is the bigger priority here?”
A source familiar with the outlook of high-dollar Democratic donors, meanwhile, said the overwhelming sense at the moment is that these networks are “tapped out” after a 2020 general election in which they went all in to elect Joe Biden to the presidency.
“It seems fairly established, and accepted, in the world of large Democratic donors that raising big money for this—I mean in the hundreds of thousands to millions per individual—will not be an easy task,” said the source.
That’s not to say money won’t flow to Georgia: it’s widely expected that Warnock and Ossoff’s respective campaigns will take in record-breaking sums of money from smaller-dollar, grassroots liberal donors. Through the online platform ActBlue, these donors have collectively chipped in to power a slew of Democratic Senate candidates to eight- and nine-figure fundraising hauls in 2020. With their hopes of capturing the majority now squarely on the shoulders of Warnock and Ossoff, this nationwide donor network is poised to surpass even this election’s eye-popping records over the next two months.
Several Democratic sources told The Daily Beast they expected Ossoff and Warnock to each raise at least $100 million for the runoff—largely on the strength of grassroots small-dollar donors and moneyed donors hitting $2,800, their contribution limit for the runoff. As of Oct. 15, the date of the most recent campaign finance records, Ossoff had raised $33 million for his bid—in the process, setting a quarterly fundraising record in Georgia—and Warnock had raised $21 million.
Many Democrats feel optimistic that Warnock and Ossoff’s opponents—Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and David Perdue (R-GA), respectively—are beatable in a state that is rapidly becoming more favorable to Democrats. With control of the Senate, and the chance to enact Biden’s agenda, in reach, there’s little concern in some corners that the money will come. “There's plenty of appetite to win these Georgia races given how much is at stake,” said a Democratic aide with knowledge of spending plans. “It's all hands on deck and Democrats will have plenty of resources to make these races competitive, just like we did in the general.”
Haim Saban, a Democratic mega-donor who gave $2 million to Senate Democrats’ lead PAC in 2020, said in a statement to The Daily Beast, “I will always stand ready to help Democrats get elected.”
Others are less sanguine, but feel that there’s not much else for the party to do.
“So much money is going to go into those two races, and it’s going to be a colossal waste,” predicted one major Democratic fundraiser, who pointed to the fortune in donor dollars that was poured into states like Texas and North Carolina ahead of the presidential election, only for both states to end up in President Donald Trump’s column, and for Republicans to win both Senate seats that were contested.
“But it’s not like we have a choice,” the fundraiser admitted. “If Republicans keep the Senate, then every dollar we raised to elect Joe is basically wasted anyway.” The fundraiser followed up with an upside-down smiley face emoji and an emoji of a stack of dollar bills flying away on a pair of wings.
But as Democrats plead with donors that Biden’s entire agenda depends on the results of the Georgia runoffs—imagine trying to confirm a Supreme Court justice or pass a public health option with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell still holding the reins—there’s still another massive money-suck drawing dollars in another direction.
“Until we’re actually in a position when this campaign is officially over, we’re depending on the resources that we’re able to raise,” Cathy Russell, a member of the advisory council for the Biden-Harris transition team and former chief of staff to Jill Biden, told donors on a finance call on Tuesday evening, a recording of which was obtained by The Daily Beast.
According to Russell, the practically unprecedented refusal of the administrator of the General Services Administration to name Biden as president-elect has led to a shortfall of more than $9 million of expected federal funding for the transition. After all, as hard as it is to imagine passing legislation through a Republican Senate, it’s even harder to imagine enacting an agenda if you’re unable to set up a functioning government.
“That’s one of the big reasons for us to be raising,” echoed Marcus Switzer, another transition fundraiser, on the call. “All along we wanted to make sure that we would be able to weather any uncertainty, and I think we’ve gotten a bit into some uncertain waters.”
Some Democrats are not concerned, however, that the massive amount of resources already expended on the election—plus the competing priorities that have emerged since—will harm the party’s chances in Georgia.
The small-dollar donation surge to the Democrats’ campaigns will, two Democratic strategists predicted, take some of the heat off the bigger-money donors, who are limited in how much they can directly give to campaigns but can contribute unlimited sums of money to super PACs, which typically provide candidates air cover in the form of attack ads. Senate Majority PAC, the biggest such group for Democrats, has spent $228 million this cycle, with much of that total going toward ads.
But one strategist also expected the GOP’s own outside super PACs to simply match, or surpass, whatever the Democrats can put on the board. “You will likely see Democratic candidates raise record-setting sums and then whatever they put up, Senate Leadership Fund”—the main GOP super PAC—“will spend to match them, or outspend them overall,” said the strategist. “There will be money on the Democratic side if it’s needed to match what Republicans are doing, it’s a war of attrition.”
Indeed, the Senate Leadership Fund is already deep into Georgia’s terrain. Of the $241 million it spent on ads this election, nearly 20 percent of it went toward opposing Ossoff. Elsewhere, the PAC’s late in the game investments in pricey ad campaigns may have proved crucial to putting key Senate races away. Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate, made several donations of $25 million to SLF, and the GOP is confident that more conservatives will open their checkbooks for the cause of keeping the Senate and obstructing a Biden presidency.
“It’s all on the line in Georgia,” said Stephen Law, president of SLF, in a statement, previewing messaging by casting the race as a choice between an overreaching Democratic agenda and a “healthy check” on it. “We were by far the largest outside group on the right in Georgia this fall, and we’re scaling far beyond that for the runoffs,” said Law.
The GOP campaigns themselves are set to be well-resourced, too. Loeffler, who was appointed to this seat in 2019, has infused her campaign with $23 million of her own money. Her husband, New York Stock Exchange president Jeffrey Sprecher, has thrown another $10 million into a PAC set up to benefit her. Perdue, meanwhile, has raised $17 million for the campaign so far. A joint fundraiser in Georgia to benefit the two of them, featuring top GOP brass, is set for later in the month.
Ossoff and Warnock’s small-dollar fundraising capacity, meanwhile, got an unwelcome hit on Wednesday in the form of Facebook’s decision to extend its ban on political ads for another month. That figures to deny the campaigns access to a crucial method of channeling grassroots contributions, not to mention informing the public about voter registration deadlines and other rules. One Democratic strategist quipped the social media giant might as well have cut a check to Loeffler and Perdue.
In statements to The Daily Beast, both campaigns urged Facebook to make an exemption for Georgia Senate candidates. “With 55 days until the election, Facebook and Google are putting their fingers on the scale for millionaire Republican candidates while ignoring the rampant disinformation on their platforms and engaging in their own version of voter suppression,” said Miryam Lipper, communications director for Ossoff.
In the meantime, candidates will have to hope that earned media and social media can pick up the slack. In the first ad of the Georgia runoff, a narrator intoned darkly: “Raphael Warnock eats pizza with a fork and knife… Raphael Warnock once stepped on a crack in the sidewalk. Raphael Warnock even hates puppies.”
Warnock’s pizza-eating ad has already been retweeted more than 28,000 times. “And by the way,” Warnock should be noted as saying at the conclusion of the ad, “I love puppies.”
Additional reporting from Jackie Kucinich