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Out-of-State Interests Spent $26.2 Million on Georgia Special Election

This story was originally published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.

Georgia's 6th congressional district is absorbing an abnormal amount of out-of-town cash — and it's not because of its music scene or southern hospitality.

Since the start of Georgia's special election early this year, out-of-state groups — super PACS, nonprofits and party committees — have together spent about $26.2 million to sway voters in the district, which has a special election runoff Tuesday, with the vast majority favoring the Republican candidate.

Two of the three counties voted for President Donald Trump in November, although polls indicate the Democratic candidate could very well win.

Of the 42 non-candidate groups spending money to influence the election, only five are based in Georgia: Better Georgia, Inc, Engage Georgia, Georgia Life Alliance Action Fund, Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund and the Georgia Republican Party.

Voters head to the poll for Georgia's special election 2:26

Collectively, they've spent less than $100,000 — veritable pennies in the river of cash swamping the district, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of independent expenditure data provided by the Federal Election Commission.

The campaigns of the candidates competing in today's runoff — Republican Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff — had spent $3.2 million and $22.5 million, respectively, through the end of May, according to campaign finance reports filed with the FEC.

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The influx of out-of-state attention has prompted overwhelming fatigue among residents.

"It's about as saturated as it could possibly be," said Brandon Hanick, director of communications for Better Georgia. "There are only so many phone calls" voters can take. Better Georgia has paid for some pro-Ossoff digital ads.

In all, a dozen Washington, D.C.-based groups, including super PACs such as the Congressional Leadership Fund, are among the race's top spenders

Coupled with the money spent by the candidates themselves, the Georgia 6th district contest has become the most expensive U.S. House race in history, easily surpassing a record set in a Florida district in 2012, according to federal campaign finance data analyzed by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.

Image: Karen Handel campaigns in Marietta, Georgia, USA.
Karen Handel (C) participates in a 'Get Out The Vote' rally at a restaurant in Marietta, Georgia on June 10. ERIK S. LESSER / EPA

The special election is necessary because former Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., was confirmed in February as the secretary of health and human services for Trump's Cabinet.

Republicans have controlled the seat since the 1970s. But Democrats, sensing a backlash against the president, see an opportunity for a win that could supercharge morale after a disastrous November. And outside groups allied with both parties have made the district an expensive battleground.

Handel, whose own campaign has been wildly outspent by Ossoff's, had out-of-state super PAC and party committee cash to even things out: Roughly 70 percent of the money spent by outside groups supported her, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of independent expenditure data provided by the FEC.

Half the outside money came from just two groups, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund, which together spent roughly $13.3 million propping up Handel's bid.

"When our candidates need back up, we provide and do what we need in order to win," Maddie Anderson, an NRCC spokeswoman, said in an email.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the top-spending outside group backing Ossoff, spent about $5 million. They did not respond to requests for comment.

Democrats look to flip Republican seat in Georgia 2:32

Meredith McGehee, head of policy, programming and strategy for campaign finance reform advocacy group Issue One, said Democrats are pouring money into the race and hoping a victory in Georgia will show they have the strength to take back the Senate and pick up House seats in the 2018 midterm elections.

"Post Citizens United, you see huge amounts of money flooding into these special elections, which become kind of characterized as proxies for political winds," she said, referring to the Supreme Court's landmark campaign finance decision in 2010. "The outside money comes in because they're trying to control the narrative."

Neither Handel's campaign nor Ossoff's campaign responded to multiple requests for comment.

The campaigns aren't letting the non-candidate groups do all the work.

Councilwoman Michelle Cooper Kelly, who represents Ward 6 of Marietta City, located in the Cobb County portion of the district, said her area is inundated with campaign efforts going far beyond traditional TV commercials.

"There's not one day that's passed that I have not received something in the mail from the Ossoff campaign, or a phone call," she said, adding that she's now getting Handel calls as well.

Matt Blizek, election field director at MoveOn.org, a liberal group, said the Georgia special election has turned into a symbol of resistance against Trump.

"This race is a chance to improve the growing wave and growing backlash that we're already seeing and building and it'll only continue to build," he said.

Jon Ossoff
Democratic candidate for Georgia's Sixth Congressional Seat Jon Ossoff speaks to supporters at a primary election-night watch party in Dunwoody, Georgia. John Bazemore / AP

MoveOn.org spent about $257,000 on ad production, online ads, text messages and TV ads, which have mainly focused on healthcare.

Roughly $350,000 contributions to Ossoff's campaign came from MoveOn.org members, and about 16,000 of those members live in the congressional district, Blizek said. MoveOn.org has been emailing and direct messaging them, encouraging them to get involved in the Ossoff campaign.

Jere Wood, the Republican mayor of Roswell, a small city within Georgia's 6th district, welcomes the amount of business activity that's increased as a result of the national attention the election has garnered.

"For all the folks, regardless of what party you're a part of, thank you," he said.

While Wood is grateful for the extra commerce, he's nevertheless concerned both candidates have lost sight of local issues as the national spotlight beams

"Are they going to fix potholes or improve public safety?" he asked.

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