If you were driving in Savannah’s southside last week and happened to pull into the Chevron station at the intersection of Abercorn and Tibet, you could have been the lucky recipient of a $25 gas voucher.
If so, you would have been handed a leaflet praising Republican U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker and lambasting incumbent U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock, the Democrat born in Savannah. You also could have been asked to go on camera to do an interview that could be tweeted to an audience far beyond Coastal Georgia.
Thursday’s gas giveaway was the work of a pro-Walker organization that has raised more than $4.3 million from some of the nation’s wealthiest conservatives to unseat Warnock. The group has distributed tens of thousands of dollars in free gas and groceries in at least half-dozen giveaways across Georgia since early June in support of Walker.
It is not vote-buying, the giveaway’s organizer said.
“We’re just trying to be as visible and helpful as possible,” said Stephen Lawson, who served as former deputy campaign manager and communications director for Kelly Loeffler’s losing Senate campaign against Warnock in 2020.
The photo of a smiling Walker on Thursday’s $25 gas voucher alongside Lawson’s signature makes clear who the giveaway’s organizers champion and to whom they hope the recipients give credit at the ballot box for the present.
The name of the political action campaign sponsoring the giveaway — 34N22 — makes it plain, too. It is a mashup of the calendar year and Walker’s jersey number when the Heisman Trophy winner played for the University of Georgia and, later, five professional football teams.
The giveaways do not violate state or federal election laws according to the group’s attorneys in a letter posted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in June. The vouchers “were given without condition; no recipient or prospective recipient was required to vote, to register to vote, to support or oppose any particular candidate, or to appear in advertisements,” they said.
By law, PACs who support candidates for elected office must work separately from the candidate’s own political campaign office. Election laws notwithstanding, recipients of the free gas and groceries — and the news organizations reporting the giveaways — have routinely conflated 34N22 with the official Walker campaign and given the campaign itself credit for the free gas and groceries.
Giveaways contradict messaging
The very notion of giveaways carried out in Walker’s name by 34N22 is difficult to reconcile with his official campaign’s pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps messaging. As the campaign’s official website puts it: “As a small-town kid who has achieved the American Dream, Herschel knows the best way to help people succeed is not to give them a handout but to teach them how to fish.”
Nor does it easily square with the messaging of most Georgia Republicans. At a meeting of Chatham County Republicans two days after the gas station handout, Rep. Ron Stephens described current labor shortages as the result of “folks that have gotten used to the Democrat handout during COVID.”
Stephens also boasted that Georgia has the lowest fuel prices in the country because the Kemp administration suspended the state gas tax.
On Thursday, the price of regular gas was $3.26 a gallon at the Chevron on Abercorn, down from an average price in the Savannah area of $4.40 a gallon in June.
Giveaways likely to continue
The locations of the giveaways point to one possible reason they continue.
Asked how the Chevron station and convenience store were chosen for Thursday’s giveaway, Lawson was vague. “It’s a high traffic area with a lot of people,” he said.
A review of the 34N22 giveaways by The Current suggests that they have been staged in less affluent, predominantly Black neighborhoods in Georgia, who traditionally vote Democratic.
Siphoning off some of that support is crucial if Walker is to beat the incumbent in November.
Thursday’s gas giveaway in Savannah came a day after a Quinnipiac University poll showed Warnock leading Walker by 52% to 46%, with a 2.7 percentage point margin of error.
Voucher recipients used to amplify anti-Warnock message
At the busy Abercorn gas station Thursday, a film crew working with Lawson conducted interviews with four voucher recipients over the course of an hour.
One of them was a man who identified himself to The Current’s reporter as Jay Cee, a Black 36-year-old warehouse worker. After the customer signed a waiver, the interviewer asked him questions from a template: Why is it important to get free gas? Has the price always been this high?
When asked how Sen. Warnock is performing in his job, Cee answered, “I don’t know.”
The interviewer quickly moved on to the next question.
“What do you think about giving lots of tax dollars to people who are coming over the border while citizens are getting in line for cheap gas?” he asked the customer.
“I feel like giving money across borders not bad,” Cee said. “But we got homeless people here.”
To give the impression of spontaneity, the interviewer urges Cee to reframe his answers: “Tell me that. No one’s ever going to hear my question.”
Within hours of Thursday’s giveaway, the Twitter account run by 34N22 published a nine-second video showing a line of cars at the gas pumps and photos of voucher recipients posing near the pumps with campaign placards reading “Gas prices are insane. #WarnockIsn’tWorking.”
The Warnock campaign says its candidate has made bringing down costs for Georgia families a top priority, “from fighting to cut costs at the pump by suspending the federal gas tax to holding Big Oil accountable for price gouging Georgians,” communications director Meredith Brasher said in a statement to The Current.
Giveaways are donor-driven
The event is just one of the ways that 34N22 is spending the mountains of money it has on hand.
34N22 is a so-called super PAC, also known as an “independent expenditures only committee.” Under the law, super PACs can accept unlimited contributions and spend an unlimited amount supporting or opposing federal election candidates but cannot directly donate to federal candidates or parties.
As of June 30, the group reported contributions totaling $4,365,177.75, all but seven of which came from outside Georgia, according to the Federal Election Commission filings.
34N22’s donors include The Home Depot co-founder, Bernard Marcus ($1.75 million); Illinois-based heir to the Schlitz brewing fortune, Richard Uihlein ($1 million); Nevada-based casino magnate Stephen Wynn and his wife Andrea ($100,000); and New York investment manager Nelson Peltz ($100,000). All are reported to be billionaires.
Between its registration on Sept. 14, 2021 — under an entity called Bulldog Compliance, with a mailing address in Beverly, Massachusetts — and June 30, 2022, it has spent $1,305,273.49 to oppose Warnock and $287,553.95 to support Walker.
‘Look at this line of people’
In a telephone interview on Friday, Lawson, who is president of political consulting firm Battleground Strategies, declined to say how locations for the giveaways are chosen. He also refused to answer questions about how many vouchers 34N22 distributed in Savannah or how much money in gas giveaways it has distributed across Georgia.
At a June giveaway in Atlanta, he said 34N22 had distributed $4,000 in gas vouchers.
Mike Patel, the owner of Shreeji Convenience Mart where the giveaway took place, could not be reached for comment. Patel operates a chain of grocery and convenience stores across the region under the umbrella of the Shivani Trading Co.
To those who view the gas giveaway as a cynical campaign stunt that exploits the needy in a troll for votes and Twitter content, Lawson says the giveaways are simply answering a need.
“I’d asked them [the critics] to look at this line of people that is forming up at 11 a.m. on a weekday to get $25 in free gas.”