ALPHARETTA, Georgia — Karen Handel sits at the diner with a placid look on her face and delivers a scathing critique of her opponent, Democrat Jon Ossoff.
“He’s raised millions outside of Georgia from Nancy Pelosi and outsiders who just don’t share our priorities,” Handel tells the camera. “My opponent doesn’t live here [and] doesn’t share our values.”
The attack has resonated among voters in this suburban Atlanta district, but they omit a seemingly critical fact, which Democrats have failed to pounce on: Handel is relying just as much on out-of-state money as Ossoff is.
There is a lesson here for both parties — a playbook that could repeat throughout the targeted races of the 2018 election cycle.
Progressive Democrats have long hoped that a campaign like Ossoff’s, which has been funded heavily by grassroots small donors from across the country, would allow the party to shake its image as beholden to out-of-state, out-of-touch financial elites.
But in Georgia, Republicans have decided to simply bury Ossoff with the familiar attack anyway, and done so largely by deploying money that is pouring in from across the state’s borders.
Handel finds an issue that sticks
Republicans have held the Sixth Congressional District since 1979, and former Rep. Tom Price won the seat by close to 30 points this fall. But Handel is running against some big obstacles as well. Hillary Clinton came within a point of taking the district from Donald Trump. Handel is trying to defend a Republican health care bill that polls very badly in her district.
To boost her chances, she has leaned into the charge that Ossoff is funded by national liberal groups with no connection to the South, arguing that the donations suggest he’d be more accountable to them than to local constituents. “My opponent has more donors and more dollars coming from outside the state of Georgia,” she reiterated at the final debate of the months-long campaign. “They are coming from Nancy Pelosi, California, New York, Massachusetts.”
Walk around the suburban strip mall called Dunwoody Village in the eastern third of Georgia’s Sixth, and you’ll encounter a lot of Republican voters concerned about Ossoff’s campaign finances.
“I really don’t like the way they’ve pumped so much money from the outside into the race. I guess Ossoff probably has enough to win, but it really bothers me,” said Harry Baker, 25, who plans to vote for Handel on Tuesday.
Almost every Handel voter I’ve spoken with here has mentioned that line of attack. “I don’t like all of this out-of-state political money coming in and deciding who is going to be our congressman,” said Steven Beeferman, a Handel voter who has lived in the district for 31 years after moving from Brooklyn.
Handel’s attacks are fair. The Democratic National Committee has spent money targeting minority voters in the race, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent more than $2 million on the race, and Pelosi held a fundraiser for Ossoff this March.
But the vast majority of Ossoff’s money has come from a surge in national grassroots donations from across the country; he has shattered fundraising totals by raising more than $22 million, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Aided by national liberal groups like the Daily Kos and ActBlue, Ossoff has received money from more than 200,000 small-dollar donors across the country.
Handel, running against Ossoff’s outside money, is almost totally funded by outside money
Handel has attacked that fundraising while raking in large amounts of cash from outside groups herself. The US Chamber of Commerce, Donald Trump, and the National Republican Congressional Committee have all directly raised money for Handel’s campaign, which may in turn be used to fund the anti–outside money attacks.
Moreover, Super PACs have poured millions into the race on Handel’s behalf, and of the donations sent directly to her campaign, 78 percent have come from outside of Georgia (the number is 96 percent for Ossoff), according to the AJC. Ossoff has received money from three times as many donors within the state of Georgia as Handel.
“These groups that have received a lot of money from big names are going to bat for [Handel] using money outside the state of Georgia,” said Michael Beckel of Issue One, a money-in-politics advocacy group, in an interview. “Handel has really been aided by this outside conservative group cavalry coming in.”
The vast majority of money spent on Handel’s behalf also comes from outside the state. Handel has relied on groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund, closely associated with Speaker Paul Ryan, which has spent $2 million on the race. Not only are CLF’s donors outside Georgia’s Sixth, but campaign finance experts can’t even find its funders because the groups that are funding it do not have to disclose their donors.
“The Congressional Leadership Fund has received a significant chunk from the American Action Network, which does not disclose its donors,” Beckel said. “When you have money going from groups that do not disclose their donors, it’s very hard to know the ultimate source for these expenditures to those that do.”
Why Handel’s attack should scare Democrats nationally for 2018
Handel’s successful line of attack against Ossoff for being funded by outside groups should scare national Democrats who are thinking hard about how to take Congress in 2018. Many members of the party’s progressive wing have argued that if Democrats just funded campaigns through grassroots donors, they could successfully shake their image as being tied to the elite coastal donors that appears to sink them at the polls.
“The way you run now is based on your connection on the donor class — that’s how you’re evaluated. We have become beholden to not only the donor class but also the consultant-industrial complex,” said Krystal Ball, who started the People’s House Project, a new PAC to fund candidates who break with the party’s establishment. “We want to play with another way to run Democratic campaigns.”
But it’s just not true that Ossoff has raised money primarily because of his ties to the donor class. He took off with the small-dollar donors right after Trump’s election, long before Pelosi noticed the race, by promising to “Make Trump Furious” in an online fundraiser. More than two-thirds of his donations come from small-dollar donors.
You could look at Handel’s attack ads against Ossoff’s “outside cash” and conclude that Democrat made a fundamental mistake in not denying money from the DNC and DCCC. Or you could conclude that Handel would have criticized him for taking money from outside the state anyway, and that Democrats’ image problem as coastal elites may not be solved by a grassroots donor army alone.