SAVANNAH — Regardless of whether he wins his race for Congress this fall, Augusta businessman and Republican Rick W. Allen is on the brink of joining an exclusive club in Georgia politics — candidates willing to spend $1 million of their own money seeking election.
The owner of a construction company that builds schools, hospitals and office buildings, Allen is challenging Democratic U.S. Rep. John Barrow in one of the nation's most competitive congressional races of 2014. After five terms in office, Barrow is an intimidating fundraiser who has already hauled in $2.3 million for his re-election campaign. Allen has tried to keep up, at least in part, by reaching for his personal checkbook. He did the same thing two years ago, when he ran unsuccessfully in a fiercely competitive GOP primary race for Barrow's 12th Congressional District seat.
Fundraising reports filed by his campaign show Allen so far has invested $949,961 of his own cash into the 2012 and 2014 campaigns combined. He would have surpassed $1 million already had the campaign not reimbursed him June 3 for a small portion of the money he's loaned for the race. Not many Georgia candidates have such deep pockets.
"There are not a whole lot of people who have an extra million dollars lying around," said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. "To be able to start writing checks and keep writing checks is not typical for most candidates."
If Allen keeps dipping into his personal bank account, he'll join the ranks of other Georgia entrepreneurs who have tried using wealth they earned running successful businesses to launch second careers in politics. The most recent example: former Reebok and Dollar General CEO David Perdue, who spent more than $3 million of his own cash to win the Republican nomination in Georgia's U.S. Senate race this year.
Democrat Michael Coles, founder of the Great American Cookie Company and now chairman of Jason Carter's gubernatorial campaign, wagered more than $6 million of his personal wealth on failed challenges to then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1996 and Sen. Paul Coverdell in 1998. Fellow Democrat Roger Kahn, a successful liquor distributor, poured $5.8 million in self-funding into U.S. House races he lost in 2000 and 2002.
GOP congressional candidate Robert Lamutt and Democratic Senate hopeful Cliff Oxford both got defeated in 2004 primary races after burning more than $1.5 million apiece from their own wallets. And no self-funding Georgia candidate may ever top Republican multi-millionaire Guy Millner, who put up a whopping $19.7 million and lost three times running for governor, the Senate and governor again from 1994 to 1998.
There's a good chance Allen's investment could pay off in the 12th District, which covers 19 counties and includes the cities of Augusta, Statesboro, Dublin and Vidalia. Though Barrow has been in Congress now for a decade, his district since 2012 has been packed with voters who favor Republicans. His re-election two years ago hinged on Barrow winning support from not only Democrats but also thousands of crossover voters supporting Mitt Romney, the GOP presidential nominee who carried Barrow's district.
The $399,961 in personal funding Allen has spent so far on the 2014 race went mostly toward winning the May 20 primary. The extra cash helped Allen crush four other Republican primary contenders and avoid a costly and bruising runoff.
As of June 30, Allen's campaign had raised a total of $1.2 million — with his personal money accounting for a dollar out of every $3. The crowded GOP primary forced Allen to spend most of his money, whereas Barrow was uncontested and able to stockpile cash for the fall campaign. Allen at the end of June had $225,567 left in the bank, compared to $1.8 million remaining in Barrow's account.
Allen's campaign declined a request to interview the candidate. Asked about Allen's decision to spend so much of his own money, campaign spokesman Dan McLagan said in an emailed statement: "Rick believes in paying his success forward for his grandkids and their generation."
He added that if Democrats such as Barrow and President Barack Obama have their way in Washington, "frankly, money is not going to be worth a lot."