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Jon Ossoff speaks to a group of college Democrats at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta on April 5, 2017.
Jon Ossoff speaks to a group of college Democrats at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta on April 5, 2017. Benjamin Rasmussen for TIME

Outside Money Dwarfs Local Spending in Georgia Special Election

Georgia’s 6th congressional district is filled with homey, community charm: tree-lined streets, meandering rivers and picturesque parks. Its solidly red politics are usually just as tranquil.

But Tom Price, the district’s longtime Republican U.S. House member, stepped down earlier this year to join President Donald Trump’s Cabinet. That sparked Tuesday’s special election to fill his seat, which has suddenly made the district the unlikely focus of national political interests willing to spend unprecedented amounts of money.

The barrage of TV ads, email messages and robo-calls, often from organizations headquartered hundreds of miles away, have left some district residents feeling like pawns, not players, in their own congressional election — and some candidates as if they’ve lost control of the race.

“I’m concerned that the election could be decided by the influences coming from the national level and not from within Georgia,” said Liz Hausmann of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce.

Federal campaign finance disclosures bolster that notion: Through Sunday, super PACs, nonprofits and other groups independent of any candidate’s campaign have spent $9 million on the Georgia 6th race.

Just one of these outside groups spending money to influence the Georgia 6th election — Athens, Georgia-based Better Georgia Inc. — is headquartered within state lines. Better Georgia Inc.’s $1,070 in spending, all to support Democratic front-runner Jon Ossoff, accounts for less than one one-thousandth of overall non-candidate spending.

Said another way: When the candidates’ own campaign money is excluded, the Georgia 6th special election has attracted about one Georgia penny for every $10 in national cash, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of federal campaign finance disclosures.

Price, who is now Trump’s secretary of health and human services, had cruised to re-election every two years since he first won the seat in 2004, which means this special election is the first time the district has seen more than negligible spending by outside groups.

Many cash-flush organizations such as the pro-Republican Congressional Leadership Fund, the National Republican Congressional Committee, the 45 Committee, the National Rifle Association and Planned Parenthood, are spending money in the district for the first time this century.

The Congressional Leadership Fund’s ad blitz has been particularly scathing, with one spot panning Ossoff for his college glee club stylings and dressing up as Star Wars’ Han Solo. The super PAC is funded in large part by GOP megadonors such as billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam Adelson; Houston Texans owner Robert McNair and fossil fuel giants Chevron and Devon Energy.

So far, Ossoff has raised far more money than any of his 11 Republican opponents. In fact, he’s raised more than all of them put together.

But outside organizations have rushed in to make up the difference: about 65 percent of all non-candidate money spent so far — $5.8 million —has gone toward opposing Ossoff.

“This is a new experience for Georgia,” said Amy Morton, chairman of the Better Georgia, a nonprofit. “Georgians aren’t used to this saturated political environment.”

Even though Georgia’s 6th district has traditionally been safely Republican, Ossoff — a 30-year-old documentary filmmaker, small business owner and national security staffer for Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Georgia — is making a serious bid to win without a runoff election, a feat that would require him to get more than 50 percent of the vote Tuesday. Polls show him within striking distance of that mark.

His campaign message reflects the race’s national tinge: “Make Trump Furious.” And a big chunk of his own $8.3 million campaign war chest comes from people who don’t live in the Peach State.

About $4 out of every $5 dollars Ossoff’s own campaign has raised from big-dollar donors — those giving more than $200 — come from outside of Georgia, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of federal campaign finance records. That’s a sign of the high stakes the race has for Democrats nationwide who are eager for a win.

William Pearce, a California professor who gave Ossoff $240, said he’s hoping his contribution helps counteract megadonors who give outside groups seven-figure checks.

“I wish all politics were truly local, where local money would go to local elections, but that’s just not the system that campaign finance laws have given us,” Pearce said.

Ossoff has also raised $5.6 million from small-dollar contributors who aren’t required to publicly disclose their names or addresses.

Keenan Pontoni, Ossoff’s campaign manager, said that the average contribution to Ossoff’s campaign for a small-dollar donation is $42. Pontoni sees this average as proof of Ossoff’s grassroots support base.

In contrast Republican candidates are relying more heavily on home-grown donations, but they’re getting far fewer.

For example, just 23 percent of Republican candidate Karen Handel’s big-dollar contributions — more than $200 per donor — came from out-of-state sources, but she’s only raised $421,000. About 44 percent of the big-dollar donations Republican candidate Bob Gray received came from outside the state – he’s raised just over $230,000.

The Republicans, though, are getting far more outside help. The Congressional Leadership Fund and the National Republican Congressional Committee, both headquartered in Washington, D. C., have funneled millions into Georgia, mostly in the form of television advertisements to either boost a candidate they like or malign one they don’t.

“The NRCC has invested in this race because we intend to keep the seat out of Jon Ossoff’s hands,” NRCC spokeswoman Maddie Anderson said.

The NRCC’s partisan counterpart, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, hasn’t spent money on TV ads or other pro-Ossoff messaging, according to records filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Nevertheless, the DCCC has been firing off a string of Georgia 6th-themed fundraising messages to supporters, such as one Monday with a subject line that whines: "kiss all hope goodbye." The message reads: “It’s going to take a tremendous wave of grassroots support to fund the resources we’re rushing to Georgia TONIGHT. Will you pitch in $1 before midnight to defeat Republicans in Georgia and nationwide?”

A DCCC representative did not return requests for comment.

Pontoni, Ossoff’s campaign manager, says national conservative interests are spending big simply because they’re afraid of “someone with a background of rooting out corruption threatens their stranglehold over purse strings in Washington.” Therefore, he added, it is “not surprising that they’ve spent millions of dollars on cynical, partisan attack ads in a desperate effort to distract voters and prevent us from having a substantive discussion of the issues.”

Handel, the leading Republican candidate in the crowded special election field, has benefitted from more than $1 million spent by conservative super PACs to boost her.

But not all conservatives do: right-leaning group Club for Growth Action has put in nearly $440,000 to oppose her, mostly in the form of negative television and online ads. Handel’s campaign did not return the Center for Public Integrity’s request for a comment.

Keith Grawert, another Republican candidate, is concerned that the fractured Republican field and independent spending by Republican-allied outside groups will splinter the voter base, giving Ossoff the victory.

“It’s not value-added stuff,” said Grawert, who argued negative attack ads from outside groups distract from the problems of the people in his district.

Grawert added that money is “drowning out the opportunity for the people of Georgia have their voices heard.”

Cobb County, Georgia, resident Amber Harris said she saw pro-Ossoff campaign advertisements on TV and decided to vote for him.

“I usually vote Republican, but I think they are turning a blind eye to what Trump is doing. I’m angry and I know a lot of other women feel the same way,” said Harris, who said her vote is motivated by her strong opposition of Trump, not necessarily her support for Ossoff. “I see a lot of Ossoff yard signs on lawns of people I know usually vote Republican.”

If Ossoff fails to win more than half the vote Tuesday, a special election runoff between the top two finishers would be scheduled for June 20 — giving national political groups more than two more months to fight their proxy battle in suburban Atlanta.

The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.

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