Republican visitors are likely to be quite common around here this fall.
Partly because Georgia has a hot race for governor. And partly because AirTran Airways this summer gave $75,000 in free airfare to the Republican Governors Association.
There’s nothing stopping them.
According to state law, the largest single check that can be written to a campaign for governor is $6,100. Individuals only — no corporations, please. It is a pleasant enough fiction, best consumed with milk, cookies and a cuddly teddy bear at your side.
In truth, there are much larger sums involved in the contest between Republican Nathan Deal and Democrat Roy Barnes. Much of the cash — but far from all — is beating a path to the doors of two organizations, the Republican Governors Association and the Democratic Governors Association.
Checks to either Washington-based group can be written at any time, for any amount. They can come from individuals or corporations. Consider the two groups as you would a pair of savings and loan firms, places where access to officialdom can be stored in interest-bearing accounts — to be redeemed at the proper time in either Atlanta or D.C.
Spending by the two groups, like the donations they receive, is virtually unlimited.
In the past six months, the DGA has raised more than $17 million. Its biggest givers were the Service Employees International Union, which donated $1.1 million, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which gave $3.3 million.
From Georgia, the DGA drew in $341,977. Including $7,016 in free ticketing from Delta Air Lines.
Over the same period, the RGA raised more than $28 million. Its most famous corporate donor has been News Corp., the parent company of Fox News, which gave $1 million. But collectively, Georgia companies and individuals almost matched that, giving $887,934.
The Georgia figure is already outdated. Gov. Sonny Perdue, a former RGA chairman, hosted a fundraiser in Atlanta after last month’s GOP runoff.
Perdue has done more than hold a single bash. “He knew our telephone number,” said Dick Magurno, senior vice president in charge of government relations for AirTran, explaining the airline’s $75,000 in-kind contribution.
“We don’t proactively contribute to anybody. We respond to requests,” Magurno said. “We are like Switzerland. We respond to both sides.”
And the lack of any donation to Democrats?
“They never came and knocked on our door,” the AirTran official said.
AirTran wasn’t the largest donor on the Republican side. Aflac of Columbus gave $120,000. William Ulm of Bogart, a retired businessman and regular GOP donor, offered up $100,000. The Atlanta firm of Southeastrans, which gave $25,000 to the RGA, acknowledges on its website that it has a contract with the state Department of Human Resources to provide non-emergency medical transportation.
Many Georgia companies played both sides — most giving just a little bit more to Republicans. Coke (Bottling and North America outlets) gave $135,000 to the RGA and $100,000 to the DGA. Home Depot gave $25,000 to the Republican side and $10,000 to Democrats. Southern Co., the utility firm, offered up $100,000 to each side.
The U.S. arm of Intralot, a gaming systems firm with roots in Greece, gave $50,000 for GOP races for governor but $110,000 to Democratic contests.
Both the DGA and the RGA warn donors that their money can’t come with geographic strings. With 37 contested races for governor, cash raised from Georgia won’t necessarily be spent in Georgia, they say. And that is somewhat true.
But in August, the DGA sent $500,000 to the state Democratic Party to help Barnes. And for the past month, the Deal campaign — drained of cash by a runoff with Karen Handel — hasn’t spent a dime on radio or TV ads. Every anti-Barnes ad you’ve seen or heard has been paid for by the RGA.
The two governors associations have adopted different approaches in Georgia. The DGA has left decision-making on spending to the locals. So far, the RGA has kept tight control over its advertising role in the Georgia race — though by law it can’t consult or collude with the Deal campaign.
RGA officials wouldn’t speak to it, but there are only two reasons for such an approach: A) to maintain control and flexibility in spending; or B) a lack of trust between the Washington organization and the local campaign or party.
We have no evidence for B, so we must assume A — that flexibility is paramount.
This week, a state judge ruled that the RGA was remiss for failing to report a last-minute $1 million donation to Texas Gov. Rick Perry for his re-election bid in 2006 — when Mitt Romney was RGA chairman. (Texas has no campaign contribution limits.)
The judge has ordered the RGA to pay a $2 million fine. Mike Schrimpf, the RGA spokesman in Washington, said the decision will be appealed — and will not affect the group’s financial situation in this election cycle.
But the case does show the money that could soon be flowing in Georgia — from both sides.