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Following the money in 9th District race

With Nathan Deal running for governor, race for open House seat could be costly

POSTED: August 8, 2009 11:43 p.m.

With the election still nearly 15 months in the future, there is only one certainty about the outcome of the race for Georgia's 9th District congressional seat: It will be a costly race.

State Rep. Bobby Reese, R-Sugar Hill, threw his hat into the ring Friday, becoming the eighth candidate and the seventh Republican to enter the congressional race. And although he says he has more legislative experience than any of the other candidates, Reese says a successful race is going to require money and lots of it.

"You've got to get your word out; you've got to have enough funds," Reese said. "You could be the best candidate, but if you can't get the word out to your constituency then you don't have a chance. ... I wish it was not as expensive as it is."

But for various reasons — the economy, the number of statewide races and the number of candidates seeking the congressional seat — the resources for this congressional race could run thin.

The upcoming election will be the first in 18 years that the 9th District seat has not been sought by an incumbent. U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal has held the seat since 1992. This year, Deal passed on another re-election campaign to run for Georgia governor in 2010.

The fact that there are eight candidates lined up to take the seat in the U.S. House of Representatives comes as no surprise to the candidates or to those watching from the political sidelines.

The candidates, like State Rep. Tom Graves of Ranger, say the number of people seeking the seat is a result of a need for reform in Washington.

"I wonder why there's not 1,000 people lined up to want to change what's going on in Washington right now," Graves said.

But political commentators and analysts say the race is the first chance in 18 years state legislators have had to move up the political ladder. And if history is any indicator of the future, it could be just as long before they have the chance again.

"You've got a lot of pent-up ambition there," said political scientist Charles Bullock, who is a professor at the University of Georgia.

The results of next year's election will likely seal the fate of the 9th District's representation for at least 10 years. Since 1953, only three people have represented the district in Washington.

Prior to Deal, the district was represented by Ed Jenkins (1977-93) and the late Phil Landrum (1953-77).

"That's not a whole lot of turnover," Bullock said. "...If you decided to build a career as a political figure, you've worked your way up from local government to state legislator and then you get to Congress, you've pretty much reached your penultimate position. The pay's pretty good; they get lots of perks."

But snagging the seat this time around will require name recognition, an expensive feat in the 15-county district that stretches across North Georgia from Hall County to Dade County on the Alabama line.

Even though, name recognition may come easier for candidate Mike Evans, a former state representative who later represented the 9th District on the state's DOT board, Evans still expects the race could cost him between $750,000 and $1 million.

"It's no mystery, it's expensive if you go (the TV) route," Evans said. "Even the mail route, the direct mail route, is very expensive. There's going to be a lot of competition on the airwaves and in the mailboxes."

The southern portion of the 9th District is dominated by the Atlanta television market, which has the most expensive advertising costs in the state, Bullock said.

In a congressional race, television advertising costs are unavoidable, said Tom Crawford, a columnist with Capitol Impact.

"You've got to buy a certain amount of TV time, and that gets more expensive every year, it seems like," Crawford said. "And especially in a situation like this where all these ... candidates are very well-known in their own counties but certainly not that well-known in the rest of the district, they have to establish some name identity here and you've really got to have TV in a congressional race, I think, to do that to any effective degree."

Bill Stephens, the former majority leader in the state Senate, said that in order to air an advertisement for his congressional campaign in the Atlanta television market, he will likely have to pay $300,000 weekly for one that the average person would see 10 times. In the Chattanooga television market, which also covers some of the congressional district, the same advertisement would cost less than $100,000, he said.

"If one runs (on) Atlanta television, obviously you're educating 60 percent of Georgia and only a small percentage of those are eligible to vote in the 9th District," Stephens said. "...That's why people scramble to raise money."

Most all of the candidates acknowledge that it will take money to become the next 9th District representative, and most of them are expecting an even more expensive runoff election.

Lee Hawkins, a state senator and Republican from Gainesville, says he is busy planning fundraisers and will soon start driving through the district to raise money on what he calls a "360 front." Other candidates busied themselves in budget meetings this week, deciding how to make the resources go the furthest.

But at least one of the candidates in the race, Eugene Moon, an independent, conservative candidate from Gainesville, says he does not need the big money behind him to create name recognition in the district.

Moon, a 41-year-old marketing manager, plans to go from door-to-door throughout the district to win the hearts of voters. He has set a goal to contact 20,000 voters over the next 18 months, and is reaching out on social networking sites like Facebook to find them.

"We've set goals for ourselves, because money doesn't put people in office - voters do," Moon said. "I've got a grassroots team of people all throughout my district that are willing to hit the pavement for me. I‘m not relying on the ticket or the party to get me elected. I'm relying on the people to get me elected."

But Bullock said election to a congressional seat is nearly impossible without money or the support of the mainstream party. Bullock says that certainly, whoever gets the Republican nomination is going to win the seat.

"When Ross Perot couldn't make headway with all the money he's got — yeah, good luck to this guy," Bullock said.

Culling together the campaign contributions that will pay for such an expensive campaign is difficult when there are multiple races occurring in the throes of a recession, Bullock said.

"People are less willing to whip out their checkbooks and write checks to candidates (as) they might have done four years ago, six years ago," Bullock said. "They've got to budget what they can spend on politics. If they've already tapped that out giving to (Deal) then they may not be in a position to help out the candidates running for Congress."

Jim Walters, a prominent Gainesville businessman and regular campaign donor, says the economy could affect donor's ability to participate.

"Folks just don't have the dispensable cash they had at one point in time, because of various issues," Walters said.

And along with the economy, the number of Republican candidates seeking out donations for various statewide and federal offices this year could draw down the pool of resources pretty quickly.

Almost immediately after Deal announced his gubernatorial bid in May, two candidates, Graves and Evans began raising money for their campaigns. Over the next two months, seven more candidates joined the race, including Hawkins.

Hawkins, who just kicked off his campaign last week, entered the race exactly one month after Evans and Graves reported raising more than $100,000 for their campaigns.

By that point, Evans, Graves and Stephens already had a considerable number of donations from Hall County, and Hawkins admits that gathering donations will be more difficult now that some of his local donors have already been tapped.

"Anytime you're behind coming out in a race it makes it more difficult, because people have been approached and a number of people have already committed," Hawkins said.

In fact, Walters, who was one of the major contributors to Hawkins' last state Senate campaign, has already pledged money to Hawkins' opponent.

Campaign disclosure reports filed on June 30 showed that Walters gave $2,400 to Graves' campaign.

Hall County Commission Chairman Tom Oliver and the political action committee Campaign to Elect Billy Powell, which each donated $500 to Hawkins' senate campaign in 2006, also already contributed to Hawkins' congressional opponents.

But that does not mean that Hawkins will go unsupported. Walters says he still plans to support the Hall County candidate. In the past, Walters has contributed to more than one candidate in political races.

"Now, it's just going to cost me twice as much, isn't it?" Walters said.



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