Judge says Kemp can’t use special fund in his GOP primary reelection bid

A federal judge on Monday dealt a partial blow to Gov. Brian Kemp’s reelection fundraising plans, saying he can’t use a special leadership committee that lets him raise unlimited campaign contributions to help him win the Republican primary.

But it was a split decision, because the ruling also said Kemp can still use the new leadership committee to raise money — including during the General Assembly session — to spend in other races. That could include his expected rematch with Democrat Stacey Abrams if he wins the GOP primary.

And the ruling does not say the committee has to give back the money it previously spent or has committed to spend on things such as advertising to win the Republican race.

Kemp’s committee ran ads pummeling his leading Republican opponent, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a few days after he entered the governor’s race in December. It had raised $2.3 million through the end of January.

Perdue sued over the leadership committee law, saying it gave the governor a massive fundraising advantage over his challengers.

U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen partially sided with Perdue’s team, granting a temporary injunction against Kemp using the committee in the future to help him win the primary.

“This ruling is a major win and sends a strong message that political corruption will not be tolerated,” Perdue said.

“In the dark of night, Brian Kemp signed a shady backroom deal to try and rig this race in his favor, and the people of Georgia aren’t going to let him get away with it. The court’s ruling goes to show that a 20-year career politician like Kemp will do anything to try and save himself,” Perdue said. “Kemp has lost his slush fund and is going to lose this election.”

Kemp campaign spokesman Cody Hall said: “There’s no crying in politics — except when it’s David Perdue. We look forward to winning the primary in May and keeping Stacey Abrams’ dangerous agenda from taking over our state this November.”

The law — approved during the 2020 General Assembly session along partisan lines — allows Kemp and House and Senate caucuses to create the committees that are allowed to raise unlimited donations — circumventing contribution limits — including during legislative sessions.

Kemp signed into law Senate Bill 221 — the leadership committee bill — 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. Neither are most lawmakers and statewide elected officials.

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

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 could 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. Abrams has raised $9.2 million for her latest campaign since entering the race in December.

While, under the law, Abrams can 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.

What’s at stake

The legal fight is over a new type of committee Republicans in the General Assembly approved last year to allow the governor and a few lawmakers to create special committees that can raise unlimited donations, including during the legislative session. A judge ruled Gov. Brian Kemp couldn’t use the new fund for his primary reelection campaign, but he can continue raising money — including during the session — to spend on other races.