All 236 members of the state Legislature are up for election this year. It can cost thousands of dollars to run for or remain in office -- things like signs, mailers, robo calls, political consultants and the like can add up.
But it doesn’t cost hundreds of thousands. Yet legislators, especially senior ones, often sit on war chests in the six figures. It makes them look intimidating to rivals. And when some of the money does get spent, it’s often sent to their political party or to other candidates, chosen with an eye toward internal politicking.
Campaign money mostly originates with political action committees and businesses: The top spenders on officeholders and PACs in 2011 -- not an election year for state office or the Legislature -- were law firms that lobby, road paver C.W. Matthews, former Gov. Roy Barnes, Blue Cross/Blue Shield and the Realtors’ PAC. Matthews and two law firms went above $100,000 each.
Most industry-related PACs donate to both Democrats and Republicans.
Politicians also solicit money at fundraisers, such as dinners or golf tournaments. Though at a certain point, the money just rolls in.
“Senior officers of the House can raise a lot of money without asking for hardly any,” said Bob Irvin. He used to be a senior officer of the House. He was state House Minority Leader from 1995 to 2001, when the GOP was still the minority party but clearly on the ascent. He now works with Common Cause Georgia, a government transparency lobby.
As of last week, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, had a campaign fund balance of nearly $300,000. For House Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, the figure is nearly $44,000.
Bibb’s longest-serving legislator, state Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon, has $17,000 in her campaign fund. Bibb’s ranked Republicans, Senate Majority Whip Cecil Staton and House Majority Treasurer and Secretary Allen Peake, hold $72,000 and $77,000 respectively, according to filings received by the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.
Like most legislators, their districts are fairly safe for their parties.
The money is not necessarily for running a campaign office or printing T-shirts.
Most simply, “one of the values of a big war chest to an incumbent candidate is to scare off potential opponents,” Irvin said.
The fright factor applies both to potential primary challengers of the same party or general election foes from the other side.
And on closer inspection, a big sum is so important that some candidates lend thousands of dollars to their own campaigns. That puffs up the sum total in a campaign account, though it does not translate to cash given by other people in hand.
Such loans are perfectly transparent in state campaign finance disclosures.
But what to buy?
Georgia law allows campaign committees to donate to political parties without limit and to other political campaigns, subject to the limit of $2,500 for each primary and general election.
In 2011, all elected officials in total sent about $70,000 to the state GOP and about $56,000 to the Democrats. Both figures include the state and local party, party dues, tickets to party fundraisers and similar items.
And in 2010, the last time the House, Senate, governor and lieutenant governor were all up for election and donation caps were a little different, they transferred about $1.3 million among their accounts.
Among the general public, the amount of campaign transfer is not a well-known fact.
“For somebody who is in a leadership position to take funds supposedly to their own camp and then turn around and spend the money on some other candidate, that distorts the system,” Irvin said.
For some candidates, expenditures are a long list of donations to other candidates. There’s a reason for that, Irvin said.
“The contributions are typically given with an eye both toward winning the election and toward caucus politics,” he said.
Both parties in both chambers of the Legislature internally choose a leader, vice chairman, whip, secretary and treasurer. The majority party in the House chooses the powerful House speaker. Top Republicans in the House and Senate decide committee assignments and chairmanships.
Some committee memberships correlate with higher campaign donations, Appropriations and Banking among them. Those committees tend to oversee bills that involve spending money. Some committees oversee little spending, such as the judiciary committees that work with courts and attorneys.
Change the rules?
There’s a coalition working on a rule change. Common Cause, the Tea Party Patriots and the League of Women Voters are among the organizations pushing a new ethics bill that would limit campaign-to-campaign or campaign-to-party transfers to $10,000 every two years.
And while the race for funds does not appeal to all legislators by any means, another ethics bill that also imposed a limit died in committee hearings in 2010.
The fundraising is on hiatus for a few weeks. Legislators cannot accept donations while the Legislature is in its 2012 session, which lasts 40 non-consecutive days. The session will close by April. Then it’s time for campaigning at home.
To contact writer Maggie Lee, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.