Republican Matthew McCord was feeling pretty good about the $12,000 he had raised for his campaign for Henry County district attorney when he was blindsided by a September surprise.
New York billionaire George Soros dumped $147,000 into Georgia Safety & Justice, an independent-expenditure committee registered on Aug. 26, aimed at defeating Mr. McCord and electing his opponent, Democrat Darius Pattillo.
After recovering from the shock, Mr. McCord, a former prosecutor in Clayton and Newton counties, did what he thought was best for himself and the party: He dropped out of the race, allowing Mr. Pattillo to run unopposed.
“It was horrible,” said Mr. McCord, a lawyer in private practice in McDonough. “They rented space, they had a staff, they were using a Washington, D.C.-based PR firm. So what I knew was they could say whatever they wanted to say about me. It didn’t matter if it was true, and I would have no way to respond.”
He had already received a taste of things to come. “I’ve always been fairly centrist. I have a foundation that I started that has paid to send minority kids to school. And they [Soros campaigners] were already trying to paint me as a white racist,” he said. “It’s deplorable.”
Mr. McCord wasn’t alone. In 2015 and 2016 Mr. Soros, a leading Black Lives Matter funder, sunk more than $7 million into at least 11 local prosecutorial races in 10 states in an effort to implement criminal justice reform from the inside.
In addition to Henry County, the races took place in Bernalillo County, New Mexico; St. Louis; Harris County, Texas; Maricopa County, Arizona; Cook County, Illinois; Jefferson County, Colorado; Orange/Osceola counties, Florida; Hinds County, Mississippi; Lowndes County, Mississippi, and Caddo Parish, Louisiana.
Most of the time it paid off: Of the 11 races for county district attorney examined by The Washington Times, the Soros-backed candidate won nine. In two of those contests, Republicans took themselves out of the running before the election.
For Mr. McCord, the decision to exit came after he spoke with Republican Dhu Thompson, who lost his bid for district attorney a year ago in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, after Mr. Soros’s Louisiana Safety & Justice PAC spent $800,000 on behalf of his opponent.
“He [Thompson] said to me, ‘The get-out-the-vote effort is massive. When Soros comes in, he’s going to bring his own people, and they’re going to bus everyone he can to the polls, and it’s going to affect other races,’” said Mr. McCord.
“Every Republican who won here won by a pretty thin margin,” he said. “If I had stayed in it, I was pretty sure it would inure to the detriment of people who were my friends, who were also running for office.”
Progressives have praised Mr. Soros’ commitment to helping elect prosecutors who share his commitment to goals such as “reducing racial disparities in sentencing and directing some drug offenders to diversion programs instead of trials,” said the Reverb Press’ Megan Hamilton.
“While other mega-donors pour money into the presidential and congressional campaigns, Soros is changing the American justice system for the better,” she said in a Sept. 1 post.
Opined New York magazine: “Soros is trying to buy America a less racist justice system.”
But Republicans have raised alarm over the specter of bought-and-paid-for county prosecutors beholden to Mr. Soros and their impact on an independent criminal justice system.
Those concerns were heightened when one Soros-backed candidate, Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith, was indicted in September on charges of attempting to hinder the prosecution of two criminal defendants. He has pleaded not guilty.
The Mississippi Safety & Justice PAC spent about $56,000 to help re-elect Mr. Smith in November 2015.
Democratic candidates have insisted that the Soros money came as a surprise — which is probably true given that candidate campaigns and independent committees are forbidden from collaborating — and that the funding would have no impact on their positions.
Mr. Pattillo told the Henry Herald that he had received no money personally or for his campaign, adding, “I think this is being used as an excuse or a distraction.”
Democrat Kim Ogg, who defeated Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson last week by 54 percent to 45 percent after receiving nearly $1 million from the Soros-backed Texas Safety & Justice PAC, argued during the campaign that the incumbent’s record was far more significant than the Soros money.
“My opponent’s campaign has tried to create a false narrative that my policies have been influenced by my financial supporters, but my policy and platforms have been consistent,” Ms. Ogg told Free Press Houston in an Oct. 31 interview.
Each of Mr. Soros’ state-registered committees has the same name: the name of the state followed by “Safety & Justice.” Whitney Tymas, who is listed as the contact on the state campaign finance forms, did not immediately return a request for comment.
At least two of the Republicans swung back during their campaigns with attacks on Mr. Soros and his efforts to influence their races, including Ms. Anderson, who ran ads saying that he “wants to impose his socialist agenda on Harris County with his handpicked candidate Kim Ogg.”
The anti-Soros tack didn’t work in Harris County, but it did in Jefferson County, Colorado, where Colorado Safety & Justice sunk $1.1 million into a failed attempt to unseat GOP District Attorney General Pete Weir — or 18 times what his campaign raised.
Both Democrats and Republicans rushed to condemn the outside interference, including former Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, who slammed in an Oct. 20 op-ed “Soros’ false and reckless attempt to manipulate the DA’s race in the 1st Judicial District.”
Many of the candidates who benefited from the Soros donations are minorities, but not all, including Mr. Weir’s Democratic opponent, Jake Lilly.
Mr. McCord said he believes it’s more a case of Mr. Soros choosing candidates who already agree with his criminal justice philosophy.
“Obviously Soros picks people who share his point of view,” Mr. McCord said. “But I think it’s awfully disingenuous when people who are the benefactors of that money act like they don’t know anything after it happened.”
In addition, “They certainly don’t refuse it,” he said. “And if there’s any ideological difference between them and Soros, they don’t go out of their way to make that known.”
Mr. Thompson, now a lawyer in private practice in Shreveport, Louisiana, said he never heard from Mr. Soros during last year’s campaign, even though he challenged him on multiple occasions to come to town for a debate.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. “Only time will tell if there was a specific policy he [Mr. Soros] wanted them to implement,” said Mr. Thompson. “But we’re keeping our eyes wide open.”