Federal judge curtails law that gave Kemp fundraising advantage over Abrams

A federal judge sided with Democrat Stacey Abrams in ruling that Republican Gov. Brian Kemp's leadership committee can’t raise any more money unless he becomes the party’s nominee, either by winning the May 24 GOP primary or a runoff four weeks after that.

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A federal judge sided with Democrat Stacey Abrams in ruling that Republican Gov. Brian Kemp's leadership committee can’t raise any more money unless he becomes the party’s nominee, either by winning the May 24 GOP primary or a runoff four weeks after that.

A federal judge on Thursday ordered a special committee to suspend raising campaign money for Gov. Brian Kemp’s reelection bid until the GOP gubernatorial nomination is decided, temporarily eliminating what had been a major advantage Republican lawmakers carved out for him.

Judge Mark Cohen ruled that Kemp’s leadership committee — Georgians First — can’t raise any more money unless he becomes the party’s nominee. He faces former U.S. Sen. David Perdue in the GOP primary.

By then, his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, will be her party’s nominee and be eligible to use the same leadership committee law to raise unlimited funds from donors. Abrams is running unchallenged in the Democratic primary.

The law passed by the Republican-led General Assembly in 2021 lets the governor, the opposing party’s gubernatorial nominee, the lieutenant governor and party caucuses create special committees to raise as much cash as they can without limits. It gives incumbents an added edge since their challengers can’t use the funds until they win their party’s nomination.

Cohen recently ruled Abrams won’t be the Democratic nominee until the primary is over, preventing her from raising money through a leadership committee until then. So Abrams’ lawyers asked the judge to stop Kemp’s campaign from raising money from its leadership committee to “level the playing field.”

In a hearing Thursday, Cohen called the leadership committee law “unprecedented” because it set up a scenario where one person — the governor — can do something his challengers can’t: raise unlimited money before the primary.

“He’s the only candidate in the state of Georgia who can have a leadership committee right now,” Cohen said.

The judge compared it to the General Assembly passing a law saying the governor — and only the governor — can ignore legal limits on how much individuals and businesses can donate.

In his ruling, Cohen wrote, “Allowing Governor Kemp’s re-election campaign to be the beneficiary of unlimited contributions raised through a leadership committee he chairs while, at the same time, Abrams is restricted to the statutory limit of $7,600 by Georgia law is ‘antithetical to the First Amendment.’

“The public has no legitimate interest in the enforcement of an unconstitutional statute.”

After the ruling, Abrams campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo said, “We are pleased the court both recognized and offered a remedy today for the unconstitutional fundraising advantage Brian Kemp signed into law benefiting himself.

“After months and months of Brian Kemp having exclusive ability to raise unlimited funds as a result of the bill he signed, Kemp will no longer be able to raise these funds while Stacey Abrams and (her leadership committee) One Georgia are denied equal ability to operate under the same rules.”

Kemp campaign officials had no comment on the ruling.

The governor’s leadership committee — Georgians First — was formed last year days after the law he signed went into effect.

It gave Kemp a massive edge. There are limits on how much a candidate can raise from an individual or business interest that don’t apply to leadership committees, so they can collect huge checks from donors.

Statewide candidates, such as those running for governor, are currently allowed to raise $7,600 from individual donors for the primary and again for the general election, plus $4,500 per runoff.

In contrast, Kemp’s leadership committee had taken checks up to $250,000 from individual donors in its first few months of operation.

As of Jan. 31, Kemp’s leadership committee had taken in at least $2.3 million since it was formed in July. That is on top of the $12 million the governor has reported having in his campaign account.

In the opening months of the campaign for governor, Abrams and Perdue struck an alliance criticizing the leadership committee system. Both have framed it as an unfair law designed to help Kemp.

Perdue challenged it in court.

Cohen ruled in Perdue’s favor, issuing a decision in February that said the fund can’t be used to help the governor win his primary. However, the judge’s ruling held that Kemp’s fund could continue to receive unlimited donations to use in the general election campaign as long as the money isn’t spent directly on the governor’s primary campaign.

If Kemp wins his GOP primary, he faces a rematch with Abrams. The Republican narrowly won a closely fought contest with her in 2018.


Our reporting

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