ATLANTA — The lousy economy and a crowded field of candidates has made it tough for those running for governor in Georgia to raise money heading into the July 20 primary.
The scarce cash could change how the race is run.
Expect to see fewer television ads and more Internet video ads on social networking sites such as Facebook. Campaigns might have fewer paid staffers and rely more on volunteers for things such as posting signs and phone banks. And targeted robocalls and direct mail may be used increasingly to reach voters inclined to support a particular candidate rather than more scattershot — and expensive — statewide appeals.
It could be a primary election that plays out on a far smaller stage and only hits its stride as the summer months heat up.
“I think you may see most of this campaign unfold in the last three weeks,” said Eric Tannenblatt, a prominent Republican fundraiser who is supporting Karen Handel. “This could be a very unconventional election.”
While campaign officials are reluctant to discuss their internal fundraising or campaign strategy, the overwhelming consensus is that with unemployment at a record high and soaring home foreclosures, it’s been a hard year to shake money loose.
Caroline McNulty, finance director for Democrat Roy Barnes, said that when she dusted off the former governor’s donor lists she was surprised to find many phone numbers had been disconnected. Companies were no longer in business.
Stephen Puetz, the campaign manager for state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, boasted of running a lean campaign for the Republican primary.
Until recently, the campaign had just four full-time staffers and a finance team working strictly on commission. More staff has been added since then.
“We’ve got mismatched furniture,” Puetz said. “We’re very aware of every dollar that is not being spent on voter contact.”
The candidates’ bank accounts tell the story best of all.
The men and woman who have qualified to run for governor have reported raising a combined $15.5 million. That’s $3.1 million less than what the three gubernatorial candidates had at the same point in the 2006 race. Incumbent Sonny Perdue and the two Democrats battling to unseat him had amassed $18.6 million, according to their campaign filings for the same period in 2006.
Those were the good old days, say political operatives.
It costs roughly $600,000 for a weeklong statewide media buy. That’s all that several of the major contenders have in cash on hand, according to the most recent campaign disclosures.
On the Republican side, Handel had $573,610, according to the filings that covered through the end of March. Former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal had $796,312. Among Democrats, Attorney General Thurbert Baker had $624,645.
The money leaders among Republicans are Oxendine, with a little more than $2 million on hand, and Eric Johnson with $1.7 million. Barnes leads the Democratic field with $2.8 million in the bank as of the last filing.
And with less than two months to go until the election, Barnes is the only major candidate to be up on the air with a significant advertising buy in voter-rich metro Atlanta.
Also running on the Democratic side are Carl Camon, DuBose Porter and David Poythress. Among the other Republicans running are Jeff Chapman, Ray McBerry and Otis Putnam.
GOP strategist Tom Perdue, who managed Saxby Chambliss’ 2008 U.S. Senate bid, said the economy is partly to blame for the relatively low fundraising figures.
But he added that many donors are also hedging their bets, especially on the Republican side, where there’s no clear front runner.
“People are holding back contributions, or you are seeing the same person spreading money across several campaigns,” Perdue said.
“Not a large percentage of donors have maxed out their donations. They’re waiting to see how things shake out,” he said.
It all seems to benefit those heading into the election with high name recognition and a strong donor base. No one else will have much money to get in the game.
“This is going to be a very hard year for the little guy,” said Democratic strategist Rick Dent, who has worked on campaigns throughout the Southeast.
“Those folks who do contribute, they want to bet on a winner.”