composite Herring Carter

Incumbent Rep. Earl “Buddy” Carter’s campaign largely relies on political action committees and out-of-state donors while Democratic challenger Wade Herring is financed almost exclusively by individuals in his district, campaign finances for Georgia’s First Congressional District race show.

The difference could offer voters insight as to where the politicians’ priorities lie — with their constituents or with outside lobbyists — but campaign finance experts say the numbers aren’t as cut and dried as first glance might suggest. 

“In theory, candidates are looking for support from people who they represent, and one way of showing that support is in giving a contribution,” said Beth Rotman, the national director of money in politics and ethics for Common Cause, a D.C.-based government watchdog group. “Unfortunately, in reality, very few people are in a position to donate, and candidates are often in a sort of financial arms race because of ever-increasing costs to run.”

Candidates turn to lobbyists and large donors as a result, drowning out the voices of everyday Americans, Rotman said. Influence from outside PACs and the large sums of money they bring to the table is almost inescapable.

Carter has raised approximately $1.5 million this election cycle, according to FEC data through June 30. Herring trails with about $885,000 raised. Much of that money covers expenses such as rent, consultation and travel.

Just under half of Carter’s contributions come from political action committees or PACs, which are committees created to raise money for candidates. Many PACs represent a particular business, industry or value. Lobbyists for the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry have been especially generous, contributing about $200,000 to Carter, a former pharmacist who recently launched a caucus to advocate for pharmaceutical independence. 

Carter is also a member of the House Budget Committee, with the declared ambition to be its chairman if Republicans take over the House in November. Corporate and industry lobbyists stream through his office, pressing for relief or help. At election time, he turns to them for help.

Carter did not provide comment after The Current contacted his office by phone and email over several days.

Herring, who describes his fundraising efforts as “person-to-person,” has received nearly 90% of his finances from individuals. 

“I think that Mr. Carter is working for corporations and corporate interests,” Herring said. “They recognize that, and that’s why they give to him. I am working to change that and to represent the people of the first district.”

But Herring’s grass roots funding — he has just one PAC donation — are a virtue of necessity, according to University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. After representing the district for nearly a decade, Carter has solidified recognition and influence that first-time challengers lack. A contribution to his campaign holds a greater chance of return on investment since the current system of campaign financing strongly favors incumbents.

“That is a very Republican district, so it’d take some sort of extraordinary circumstance for a Democrat to be able to win in that district. A political action committee or director of a PAC looks at it and says, ‘gee, I’m not terribly happy with the incumbent. No need for me to antagonize him by giving money to a challenger if a challenger has virtually no shot of winning,’” Bullock said.

Candidates tend to dip further into PAC funding as they grow in experience, as was the case with Carter. His first House run in 2014 saw a majority of contributions come from individuals and in-state, though at a lower rate than Herring’s current campaign.

The extent of a challenger’s out-of-state contributions can also speak to an incumbent’s reputation. 

If an incumbent is “detested” by some groups, Bullock said, the challenger can benefit by receiving more outside money. Just across the state border, Jamie Harrison’s 2020 Senate run saw a tremendous amount of money coming from outside South Carolina because Democrats wanted to defeat Lindsey Graham. In Georgia, Marcus Flowers is currently running against incumbent Marjorie Taylor Greene to represent District 14 with “virtually no chance of winning.” He is also receiving a lot of money from outside the district and state because so many democrats want to see Taylor Greene defeated.

“I don’t think Buddy Carter has near the target on his back as Lindsey Graham or Marjorie Taylor Greene have,” Bullock said.