Even after election, Georgia law gives Kemp, Jones big-money edge

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, left, and Gov. Brian Kemp can both raise unlimited amounts of money over the next four years through their leadership committees while potential rivals cannot. Kemp could run in 2026 for the U.S. Senate, while Jones is a potential candidate for governor that year. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, left, and Gov. Brian Kemp can both raise unlimited amounts of money over the next four years through their leadership committees while potential rivals cannot. Kemp could run in 2026 for the U.S. Senate, while Jones is a potential candidate for governor that year. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

After he was outspent by Democrat Stacey Abrams in 2018, Republican lawmakers backing Gov. Brian Kemp didn’t want to see a repeat in 2022.

So almost two years before the Kemp-Abrams rematch, they passed a law allowing Kemp and a limited number of others to create committees that could raise unlimited contributions — ignoring donation limits everyone else had to follow — and even collect money during legislative sessions.

Abrams still outraised Kemp in 2022, but the incumbent handily won reelection. And now he’s showing how the leadership law guarantees him the financial muscle to sell his political agenda, raise his national profile and prepare for a possible U.S. Senate race in 2026. It also provides Kemp the wherewithal to sustain a kind of shadow Republican Party after spending the past two years feeling under attack from former President Donald Trump and some state party leaders.

Cody Hall, a Kemp political adviser, said his team understood early on how leadership committees could help the governor beyond the 2022 election.

“It was in the back of our heads that it would serve a variety of purposes in a second term,” Hall said.

Leadership committees give Kemp and Lt. Gov. Burt Jones — a possible candidate for governor in 2026 — a huge financial advantage over the next four years.

Under the law passed in 2021 by the GOP majority in the General Assembly, the governor, the opposition party’s nominee for governor, the lieutenant governor, the opposition party’s nominee for that office, and House and Senate Republican and Democratic leaders can create the special committees.

No other statewide elected officials, state lawmakers or candidates are eligible to create them.

Georgia State Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, sponsored the leadership committee legislation. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

While most statewide candidates last year could take about $15,000 from a single donor for the primary and general election, there is no limit for leadership committees. So, for instance, Kemp’s Georgians First got a $5 million contribution from conservative megadonor Timothy Mellon, grandson of banking tycoon Andrew Mellon. Abrams got $5 million from California philanthropist and Democratic megadonor Karla Jurvetson.

Five million dollars is more than all but a few candidates raise for contests in Georgia, and it would have accounted for about one-fourth of all the money that Kemp raised in 2018 to beat Abrams.

Combined, Kemp’s and Abrams’ leadership committees raised about $100 million for the 2022 rematch — more than twice what was spent on the race in 2018.

The governor has continued taking in big money since the election and remained in the spotlight, even after the 2023 General Assembly session ended.

While he earlier this year ruled out a run for president, he’s remained in the national discussion. He made news last month when it was announced he wouldn’t attend the upcoming Georgia Republican Party convention, highlighting a deepening rift between the state’s top elected official and a party apparatus that has shifted further to the right after Trump’s defeat.

Trump, who blames Kemp for not helping him overturn the election results in 2020, is scheduled to speak at the convention.

Kemp can use the committee to further raise his national profile ahead of 2024 or a U.S. Senate race in 2026, and to sell his agenda in Georgia by, for instance, sending out mailings in key districts to remind voters what the state has accomplished under his leadership and remind lawmakers that he’s not a lame duck as governor.

Jones has much the same ability as he considers whether to run to replace Kemp — who can only serve two terms as governor. That gives him a big fundraising edge over several other potential statewide Republican rivals who can’t legally collect the megachecks the lieutenant governor’s WBJ Leadership Committee can.

“The benefits are fairly obvious: They are playing by a different set of rules than anybody else,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican consultant who has worked on several statewide campaigns, including some of those considering a run for governor in 2026.

State Sen. Jason Esteves, D-Atlanta, filed legislation late in the 2023 session to eliminate the committees, which would force all candidates to follow the same fundraising rules — such as donation limits — again. It didn’t go anywhere in the Republican-dominated Senate, and Esteves said that’s not surprising.

State Sen. Jason Esteves, D-Atlanta, filed a bill late in the 2023 legislative session to eliminate leadership committees, which would force all candidates to follow the same fundraising rules — such as donation limits. It didn’t go anywhere in the Republican-dominated Senate, and Esteves said that’s not surprising. “The law is intended to keep those in power in power and disadvantage those who are not in power,” Esteves said. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

“The law is intended to keep those in power in power and disadvantage those who are not in power,” Esteves said. “It is purely used to give Republicans and incumbents in general a huge advantage.”

That wasn’t totally the case in 2022, when Abrams’ One Georgia Leadership Committee took in $59 million, outraising Kemp or any other Republican. But that was an isolated instance. Without making a big push, the House and Senate Republicans easily outraised their Democratic counterparts, who have been in the minority since the mid-2000s and don’t always get the same size of checks from lobbyists and other special interests.

“I don’t think as many people understood how a few people would get an advantage,” Esteves said. “People saw this as a way to benefit Democrats as well as Republicans. What they didn’t see was what was beyond that (election).”

People in both parties say they wouldn’t be surprised to see legal action aimed at either eliminating the committees or opening them up to everyone. Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a Trump-backed challenger to Kemp in the GOP primary, and Abrams both sued over the committees in early 2022, saying they gave the incumbent an unfair edge. Neither could become eligible to set up a committee before winning their party’s primary, while Kemp was able to start raising funds with his committee months earlier.

“There is an argument to be made that everyone should play under the same rules,” Robinson said. “When they created the law, there was a commonality of purpose. Republicans wanted to see a Republican compete with a fundraising juggernaut. There is no longer a common goal. In fact, there are competing interests.”

Esteves said the committees also give the individuals, lobbyists and business associations who can afford to make six- or -seven-figure donations to a governor, lieutenant governor or majority party caucus a huge advantage when it comes to decide what laws get passed or where government funding goes. This year, what was given during the General Assembly session won’t be reported until months after the session ended.

“They can game the system to buy influence,” Esteves said. “The little guy can’t do that. It’s mechanisms like this that leave the little guy behind.”

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