You may not know it, but there are two campaigns for the transportation sales tax in Georgia.
The Goliath is the $8 million effort in metro Atlanta, which is filling the airwaves with calls to untie the state’s Big City.
Then there are the efforts to pass the sales tax in the 11 other tax regions that fill out Georgia’s corners — all separate Davids, but drawing from a single, poor-cousin campaign budget of $2.5 million.
When political efforts are going well, such disparities don’t matter. But things are not going well for those who would like to see the state spend more on roads and transit. On Friday, a Channel 2 Action News poll, conducted by the GOP-oriented firm Rosetta Stone Communications, showed support for the sales tax slipping in metro Atlanta.
Fallout from the struggling campaign is showing up elsewhere.
In Cobb County, the harsh Republican reaction threatens to spoil the re-election bid of Tim Lee, the GOP commission chairman who had a hand in developing the list of projects the sales tax would finance. At minimum, Lee could be dragged into an August primary runoff.
On the other side of the dynamic, Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers of Woodstock, facing a sharp-tongued primary challenge from Brandon Beach of Alpharetta, continues to merge his re-election campaign with the wave of TSPLOST opposition. On Saturday morning, he represented the “no” side in a mini-debate on the sales tax conducted by 11Alive.
There is also growing concern that the “Untie Atlanta” message, which has generated so little enthusiasm in suburban bastions here, may also be compromising sales tax campaigns in other parts of the state. And soaking up all available campaign cash, to boot.
“We’re all in the metro Atlanta media market. So we’re seeing a lot of TV ads saying ‘Untie Atlanta — untie the knot,’ ” said Doc Eldridge, a former mayor of Athens and now president of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce.
That “untie Atlanta” message is confusing to voters in northeast Georgia, who lack any inclination to bail out metro Atlanta, Eldridge said. But those same voters might be persuaded to support the tax if it would lure more companies to the area like Caterpillar, which recently broke ground on a $200 million facility expected to employ 800 within five years. In fact, that is the intent of the tax — revenue would be spent where it’s raised.
“I don’t know that there’s regional hostility,” Eldridge said. “But there’s such an organized machine in Atlanta. We just kind of feel like the little child outside of the party. Whatever local interest there is, we’re having to generate it on our own.
“I keep hearing that there’s going to be a grass-roots campaign — a lot of robo-calling and that type of activity these next two weeks. But we haven’t seen a whole lot,” the former mayor said.
Because the money’s not there.
A memo circulating among the financial and political backers of Connect Georgia, the umbrella organization for the transportation tax campaigns outside metro Atlanta, cited polling in June indicating that passage was possible in several regions in the state — most of them beyond the reach of Atlanta TV.
Voters in tax regions anchored by Albany, Augusta, Macon and Valdosta were persuadable, the memo said. Hit them with the right arguments, and polling shoots up beyond 50 percent. All are areas that have both significant African-American populations and crowd-drawing Democratic contests on July 31. Regions dominated by Athens and Savannah have potential, the memo said. But campaigns there would require heavy funding.
The memo included this sour note: “[I]t must be noted that we currently do not have the financial resources to execute a communication campaign that models our … polling. Further resources are necessary to get the positive messages in front of voters in the areas outside of metro Atlanta.”
Cindy Miller, a spokeswoman for Connect Georgia, hadn’t seen the polling memo, but she confirmed its message. “When you get outside of Atlanta, there are real opportunities to win. You’re not hearing the chatter that you’re hearing [in metro Atlanta],” Miller said. “But it is true that we have far more opportunities than resources available. It’s all about fundraising now.”
Connect Georgia is attempting to raise an extra $500,000 before the vote. Much of it will be spent countering the message of “Untie Atlanta.”
“The Atlanta media footprint is just an unavoidable reality in this campaign,” Miller said. “The way we have to address that is direct voter contact.”
But phone calls and robo-calls and mailers and door-knocking take money and time. And both are running out.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider