Kemp the first to set up newly legal unlimited donation committee

Gov. Brian Kemp didn’t wait long to try out a new Republican-backed measure he signed into law that allows him — and a few legislative leaders — to set up funds that can collect unlimited contributions from donors.

Facing what will almost certainly be the most expensive gubernatorial reelection fight in Georgia history, Kemp’s campaign created the Georgians First Leadership Committee last month.

The fund was set up seven days after a new law went into effect allowing the governor, the lieutenant governor, legislative leaders from both parties and a few statewide nominees to create funds that don’t have to adhere to contribution caps.

The leadership funds will also be able to take contributions during the legislative session, while lobbyists are working to pass legislation and get funding for their clients. Many of those clients traditionally are big donors.

The new committees were approved during the 2020 General Assembly session along partisan lines: Most Republicans — who are in the majority — voted for them. Democrats opposed them, although their chamber leaders can also create such committees.

Kemp signed Senate Bill 221 — the leadership committee bill — into law without any public notice in May.

Statewide candidates, such as those running for governor, are currently allowed to raise $14,000 per election cycle — $5,600 in legislative races — from individual donors. They can raise more if they wind up in a primary or general election runoff.

By contrast, some top unaffiliated political fundraising committees, such as political action committees, take in six-figure donations. Congressional GOP and Democratic funds poured millions into races through committees last year, and they could do the same through leadership funds in 2022.

State Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, who sponsored the legislation that created them, called the funds a way to get untraceable contributions out of the political system because every donation would have to be reported. He also said that those running the committees could use some of the money they raise to help fellow Republican and Democratic candidates.

State Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, who is running for attorney general in 2022 and spoke against the legislation during debate on the Senate floor, said groups that by law can hide donors would still be able to give massive amounts of money to the new committees. And she questioned whether leadership committees are constitutional, since only a select few politicians will be allowed to form them.

“It’s putting a thumb on the scale for those in power so they can keep their power,” Jordan said. “It basically benefits a few folks who have decided to take themselves out of having to follow the rules.”

Kemp backers have already had a political nonprofit called Keeping Georgia Strong that can take unlimited funds from donors, including — at least $45,000 from health care giant HCA, $15,000 from the nursing home lobby and $10,000 from the filmmakers PAC. But the nonprofit’s CEO, Capitol lobbyist Clay Huckaby, said it is being phased out now that the leadership committee has been created.

That’s because the new leadership committees are more advantageous for campaigns. Political nonprofits can’t — for instance — legally coordinate efforts directly with Kemp’s campaign. His new leadership committee can, essentially making it an arm of his reelection bid.

David Emadi, executive secretary of the state ethics commission, said Friday that Kemp is the only politician who has created such a committee so far. Kemp campaign officials declined to comment for this story.

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 overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results in his favor.

So far, Kemp’s only Republican opponent in 2022 is a long shot, former Democratic state Rep. Vernon Jones, who has trumpeted his support of the former president but so far has not received his official blessing.

If Kemp, as expected, gets past the primary, he may face 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.

Kemp reported last month that his reelection campaign had raised about $12 million, the highest amount ever by an incumbent seeking reelection with a year and a half to go before the next election. Many of those who donated — businesses and individuals with interest in legislation and funding — will also likely be giving to his new leadership committee.

How much that committee raises in the second half of 2021 leading up to the start of the 2022 General Assembly session won’t be known until January.

Legislative opponents of the committees focused on the fact that they’d allow Kemp and General Assembly leaders to collect contributions during the session.

In the early 1990s lawmakers made it illegal for lobbyists and others to give campaign contributions to legislators during the session because, besides the possibility for corruption, it just didn’t look good.

But caucus funds that raise money to support GOP candidates, such as the House Republican Trust and its Senate counterpart, are already allowed to take money during sessions. State Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this year that his chamber’s rules don’t allow session fundraising anymore by Senate leadership PACs.

Republican leaders killed a late-session move by Senate Majority Whip Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega to outlaw in-session donations by leadership committees.

The leadership committee gives Kemp a head start on fundraising. The Democratic gubernatorial nominee won’t be able to set up such a committee until after next year’s primary in late May, leaving only six months to collect contributions before the 2022 general election. But if it’s Abrams, Republicans say — with her national following — she won’t have any problem playing catch-up.

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