Georgia Senate Race Tops Political Spending in 2022

In the heady world of campaign finance, there’s everywhere else, and then there’s Georgia.

While political spending in America seems to scale astonishing new heights every two years, these days no place in the nation can rival the Peach State, where an astonishing $1.4 billion has been spent on just four races since the beginning of 2020, according to a New York Times analysis.

Two years ago, more than $406 million was spent by both sides during Raphael Warnock’s successful first run for Senate. Not to be outdone, Jon Ossoff and his Republican opponent were aided by $514 million in spending to support their candidacies, a sum that shattered the record for a Senate contest.

This year, Gov. Brian Kemp and his Democratic challenger, Stacey Abrams, along with outside groups backing them, raised upward of $250 million. And so far, data from the nonprofit group OpenSecrets shows that nearly $401 million has been spent on the race between Mr. Warnock and his Republican opponent, Herschel Walker, which will be decided in a runoff election on Tuesday.

“There’s never been anything like it,” said Bob Houghton, the president of the Georgia Association of Broadcasters, a trade group that represents the TV and radio stations that are, arguably, the real winners in these races. “It just keeps coming.”

The torrent of cash is a product of two main factors.

Georgia is one of just two states that hold general-election runoffs, which unfold when neither candidate attains at least 50 percent of the vote. These runoff contests essentially amount to second campaigns, with fresh rounds of advertising to buy, get-out-the-vote efforts to pay for, and direct-mail fliers to send.

Over the four weeks leading up to Tuesday’s runoff, nearly $81 million had been spent on advertising to support Mr. Warnock or Mr. Walker, according to data from AdImpact, a media-tracking firm. That promotional blitz exceeded — by more than $25 million — the total amount spent in this year’s Senate race in Washington, which itself set a record for the state.

The other factor is how Georgia, long considered a Republican stronghold, has slid into purple territory over the past few election cycles. The newfound parity between the parties in the state has drawn significant attention from donors around the country who see Georgia as being in play.

“Because Georgia is now a battleground state, Democrats think they have a shot at it,” said Joseph Watson Jr., a professor of public affairs communications at the University of Georgia. “As a result, these local races have become nationalized.”

Campaign finance data supports that notion. More than 80 percent of the $53.7 million raised by One Georgia, an independent leadership committee backing Ms. Abrams’s unsuccessful run for governor, came from outside the state, as did almost exactly half of the $38.4 million hauled in by Mr. Kemp’s leadership committee, Georgia First. Mr. Kemp won the race by more than seven percentage points.

Those factors are particularly amplified when control of the Senate is at stake, which was the case for both Senate elections in Georgia in early 2021, a time when the runoff period was twice as long as it is this year. That helps explain the eye-popping $507 million in advertising spent during the eight-week runoff contests in Georgia that year, according to AdImpact data.

This year, the second-most-expensive race was Pennsylvania’s Senate contest, where Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Mehmet Oz and their allies spent a combined $313 million. Overall spending in competitive, statewide races in Pennsylvania — including the race for governor — totaled more than $381 million. In Georgia, the amount spent on the races for Senate and governor added up to at least $508 million.

All of that money is a boon to advertising firms and TV stations. Hilton Howell, the chairman of Gray Television, which owns stations in all but one market in Georgia, called it a “tremendous amount of spending” and “a nice Christmas present under the tree for our shareholders.” A single ABC affiliate in Atlanta, owned by a different company, has booked $86 million in political advertisements so far this year, more than any local station in America.

But some experts question the utility of so much advertising when it comes to actually winning the hearts — and votes — of the citizenry.

Erika Franklin Fowler, a professor of government at Wesleyan University and a director of the Wesleyan Media Project, a group that studies political advertising, said the impact of spending on races diminishes as more money and advertising flood into a state or media market.

“Because control of the chamber is at stake, or the added cushion, at least, I think that certainly is what is driving these numbers,” she said. “Campaigns and parties care about winning and less about efficiency, shall we say.”

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