Fundraising law that aids Kemp’s reelection gets temporary reprieve

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, left, is running against Gov. Brian Kemp in the GOP primary. He has filed suit in a federal court challenging a state law that allows the governor to raise unlimited campaign contributions even while the Legislature is in session.

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, left, is running against Gov. Brian Kemp in the GOP primary. He has filed suit in a federal court challenging a state law that allows the governor to raise unlimited campaign contributions even while the Legislature is in session.

A law that lets Gov. Brian Kemp raise unlimited campaign contributions during his reelection year — including during the General Assembly session — may not make it to Sine Die in April.

A federal judge on Monday put off ruling whether to stop Kemp’s unlimited campaign fundraising under a law that gave him a big advantage over the contenders running to unseat him.

But the judge also made it clear the law appears to help one candidate over others. And he said he would rule soon on whether to put a stop to the fundraising it allows the governor to do through a special committee.

“I want to move this case along, I don’t want to drag this case out,” U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen said.

That’s important to Kemp’s top GOP opponent, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who said the “leadership committee” fundraising law that Republican lawmakers passed last year gives the incumbent a sizable edge.

Cohen on Monday asked Perdue’s lawyers to amend their lawsuit against Kemp to include Georgians First Leadership Committee, the fund that by law is allowed to get around campaign contribution limits and raise money while lawmakers are in session.

Perdue’s lawyers in January sued Kemp, Attorney General Chris Carr and the state ethics commission, contending the “leadership committee” law is unconstitutional.

The amendment to the suit is expected to be done by Tuesday, but it gives Kemp’s committee a little more time to collect money during the ongoing session, something other state officials, including lawmakers, aren’t legally allowed to do.

Cohen made it clear the “leadership committee” law favors Kemp.

“You have uneven contribution limits for the same race for different candidates,” Cohen said during a court hearing Monday.

Later he added, “This law applies this year to one incumbent officeholder.”

The law — approved during the 2020 General Assembly session along partisan lines — allows Kemp and House and Senate caucuses to create the “leadership committees.”

Kemp signed Senate Bill 221 — the leadership committee bill — into law without any public notice in May. Facing what will almost certainly be the most expensive gubernatorial reelection fight in Georgia history, his campaign quickly created his leadership committee in July and has been raising big money from Capitol donors ever since.

Challengers, such as Perdue, are not allowed to form such leadership committees under the Georgia law.

There is a big difference in what Kemp’s committee can raise and what individual candidates for office can collect.

“What it’s about is end-running the contributions limits,” said Stephen J. Obermeier, Perdue’s lawyer.

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.

Those limits don’t apply to leadership committees that only Kemp, the eventual Democratic nominee for governor and a few legislative caucuses can create. So, for instance, a company or business association seeking a tax break from the General Assembly could give $100,000 or more to such funds and do it while lawmakers are considering the tax break or while the governor is deciding whether to sign it into law.

The committee can also coordinate its efforts with Kemp’s campaign, something regular political action committees and other funds are not allowed to do. Regular campaign committees of incumbents, such as Kemp for Governor or those run by state lawmakers, can’t raise money during the session. Kemp’s leadership committee can.

Kemp’s political team has good reason to want a massive political war chest. Former President Donald Trump, who has influence on the state’s Republican base, has kept up his attacks against Kemp for not doing more to illegally overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results in his favor. Trump has endorsed Perdue, a U.S. senator until he lost his seat in January 2021, in the GOP primary.

If Kemp, as expected, gets past the primary, he faces a rematch with his 2018 general election opponent, Democrat Stacey Abrams, who set fundraising records that year and whose voting rights group, Fair Fight, has raised more than $100 million since then.

While Abrams could add a leadership committee to her powerful fundraising arsenal, she would not be able to do it until the Democratic primary is decided in May, 10 months after Kemp created his committee.

Gene C. Schaerr, who was representing state officials at the hearing, said if Cohen throws out the “leadership committees,” he will give Perdue an advantage because challengers are currently allowed to raise money during the legislative session, which is expected to end in early April. Schaerr said that would be effectively “kneecapping the incumbent.”

Even if he issues an injunction against the committee raising or spending money, Cohen made it clear he won’t ask it to return the money it has already spent or contracted to spend. The committee ran ads pummeling Perdue in December a few days after he entered the governor’s race.

Kemp’s camp responded to Perdue’s lawsuit last month by filing a state ethics complaint against Perdue backers over a so-called “independent committee” that was raising money for the challenger. The complaint argued that the pro-Perdue fund broke the law by coordinating its effort with the challenger’s campaign.

What’s next

  • Lawyers for former U.S. Sen. David Perdue were asked to amend their lawsuit against Gov. Brian Kemp by the end of Tuesday to include his “leadership committee.”
  • The state’s lawyers have until Thursday to respond.
  • Then U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen could rule on whether to allow the committees or put a halt to their fundraising.