ATLANTA — Georgia Democrats are building a formidable advantage in their battle to hold U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock's seat and flip other statewide races: a tidal wave of cash. Republicans, meanwhile, are slowly cobbling together their own mountain of moolah.
Financial disclosures out this past week continued to cement Warnock as one of the nation's elite fundraisers. The first-term Democrat set another financial record by raising $13.6 million over the first three months of the year, ending the quarter with $25.6 million in the bank.
His top Republican rival, former football star Herschel Walker, lagged far behind Warnock's pace. But he still emerged as one of the top Republican magnets for money in the nation, amassing $5.5 million for the three-month period between January and March.
Both have built an expansive national donor network, shrugging off the attacks that come with raising out-of-state money for the cold, hard cash it will take to win a race that could decide control of the U.S. Senate.
Warnock collected contributions from 183,000 individual donors over the first three months of the year, tallying an average of $40 a pop. Like his previous fundraising quarters, the majority of the pastor's donations have come from beyond state lines.
And Walker hasn't been shy about advertising his out-of-state support, including a string of fundraisers in his former home state of Texas. His campaign pointedly said he has received contributions from more than 50,000 donors "from all 50 states," far outdoing his lesser-known GOP rivals.
But the big-money haul hasn't stopped there. Candidates for state constitutional office don't have to report their latest disclosures for another month, but early reports indicate this will be the most expensive midterm election in Georgia history.
In her first two months in the race, Stacey Abrams amassed $9.2 million for her second bid for governor. She collected nearly $2 million more in that span than Gov. Brian Kemp, a powerful incumbent, took in over a six-month period. Her campaign has fine-tuned its appeals to capitalize on even setbacks such as a recent legal defeat.
And though former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, Kemp's Republican challenger, has foundered at fundraising, he's expected to dip into a personal fortune of more than $50 million in the closing days of the race. He's urging former President Donald Trump, his most important ally, to add to the $500,000 he's already spent on his campaign.
"Once again Georgia, is the center of the political universe, which means we are a giant black hole sucking campaign dollars from throughout the nation, with dollar amounts incomprehensible to normal voters," said Rick Dent, a Democratic consultant. "And this is just the beginning."
The high-dollar atmosphere is shaped by Georgia's role as one of the nation's most politically divided battlegrounds — and a crucial test of Trump's clout. The former president is intent on remaking the state GOP with endorsements of Perdue and other challengers.
Democrats have been quickest out the gate. Though they raised more money than their Republican rivals in the last two election cycles, too, Democrats have built an edge at an earlier stage of the race when Republicans typically dominate.
Warnock's campaign said his total was the most money ever raised by any U.S. Senate candidate in the first quarter of an election year. He also tallied more individual Georgia donors than any other candidate running for Senate, and collected contributions from donors in all of the state's 159 counties.
But Republicans are sure to make up ground during the general election cycle, when Georgia is poised for an expensive sequel to the eye-popping 2020-2021 U.S. Senate runoffs, which racked up nearly $1 billion in spending before the votes were counted.
"When we get through the primary, there will be a lot of money coming into Georgia because we can win a Senate seat back here and we can win a congressional seat," Kemp said. "We can send a big message in 2022."
Even down-ticket contests are attracting big money. Donors have spent millions of dollars on the U.S. House seat held by Republican U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is expected to easily hold her deeply conservative northwest Georgia district.
And facing a surge of Republican competitors, Democratic U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop took in more than $440,000 in the first three months of 2022, ending the quarter with about $700,000 on hand.
After the Republican-led legislature redrew political lines last year, Bishop is defending a southwest Georgia district that's considered to be the state's only competitive U.S. House race in November.
"With the president's poll numbers right now, they're going to need every dollar they can get," said Kemp. "But it's also a message that we've got to continue raising money, not only in Georgia but all across the country."
The national money is already pouring in.
A political organization tied to Senate Democrats snapped up $24 million worth of airtime for the final stretch of the race. This week, the Senate Leadership Fund bought $23.9 million of ad space to help the Republican nominee over the same timeframe. And the Republican Governors Association has spent $5 million to back up Kemp through May.
In a sign of just how expensive it is to stay relevant, both Agriculture Secretary Gary Black and military veteran Kelvin King spent more money than they collected over the first three months of the year. Both those candidates, along with former Navy SEAL Latham Saddler, trail far behind Walker in every public poll.
Political analysts say both Abrams and Warnock have accounts so flush with cash they can stay on air through November. The Senate contest, meanwhile, seems destined to cost nine figures, with Warnock and potential GOP nominee Walker hammering each other relentlessly over the airwaves.
"In the end, hundreds of millions will be spent to communicate two ideas: The socialist Joe Biden lover versus the crazy football player," said Dent. "Stay tuned, Georgia."