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For Candidates, Money Isn’t Everything, but It Sure Helps

Money isn’t everything in politics. The candidate who raises the most cash isn’t always going to be the candidate who gets the most votes. But it is better to have money than not, and the candidate who raises the most is generally in the strongest position.

The latest round of campaign disclosure reports were filed last week and indicate that the dynamics of the race for governor are about where they were during the last batch of disclosures. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle is the leader in the Republican primary, having out-raised all of his opponents by a margin of better than two-to-one (Cagle’s contributions total just under $7 million). Not surprisingly, the few public polls that have been released so far also show Cagle to be the frontrunner in the GOP primary.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp comes closest to Cagle with a campaign war chest of $2.88 million, followed by former state senator Hunter Hill with $2.26 million, businessman Clay Tippins with $2.14 million and state Sen. Michael Williams (R-Cumming) with $1.78 million.

There is an old saying in politics that if you have to spend your own money on your campaign, then you probably shouldn’t be campaigning. Williams might be the most vulnerable candidate in the Republican field in that respect. He has pumped $1.5 million of his own money into his campaign, which amounts to about 84 percent of his total take.

The conventional wisdom is that Cagle’s support is a mile wide and an inch deep. He’s leading the Republican field right now, but could be in trouble if one of the others catches fires and starts peeling away his supporters. That has not happened as of yet.

Over on the Democratic side, Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans find themselves more evenly matched, each having raised a little under $2.3 million so far.

Abrams, who is better known on the national level, has drawn contributions from Hollywood celebrities like Alyssa Milano and Meryl Streep. Evans gets in-state support from people like Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and former governor Roy Barnes. Evans has also put a little more than $1 million of her own money into the race.

When you analyze campaign reports, one of the most important factors to consider is the “burn rate,” or how quickly a candidate is spending his or her available money. Most of the candidates running for governor have spent somewhere between 25 percent and 33 percent of the money they have raised, with the rest still in the bank to use during the weeks between now and the May 22 primary election. Abrams is the glaring exception. She has an astonishing burn rate of about 80 percent, which means that most of her money has already been spent on staff salaries, consulting fees, security expenses and the like.

Since we are still more than three months out from the primary, it doesn’t seem likely a campaign burning through its money so quickly could sustain itself. Abrams’ campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo, disagrees. She contended in a recent memo that raising money to spend on broadcast commercials closer to election day is a “losing formula.” It is better, she said, to spend money early building a field organization to get out the vote.

You can make a good argument that it’s important to build a strong ground game for a campaign, but that argument only works as long as you have money to pay the staff and organizers. If a campaign runs out of money and can’t pay salaries anymore, you will see the staffers quickly resign and find another campaign to work for.

It’s entirely possible, of course, that Abrams has found a way to suspend the law of political gravity here. If that is the case, I’ll be the first to say I was mistaken.