Gov. Brian Kemp and former Senator David Perdue won’t duke it out at the ballot box until May, but lawyers for both candidates faced off in federal court Monday over whether a new state election finance law unfairly favors the governor.
The fight is over a law Kemp signed last year creating special leadership committees top officials from both parties can use to raise unlimited funds during the legislative session. Legislators banned fundraising during the annual three-month session more than 30 years ago, citing a need to root out corruption or the appearance of corruption.
Democrats argued the new law is an attempt to circumvent that long-standing rule to benefit incumbents. Supporters say the law promotes transparency because it requires disclosure for large donations.
Leadership committees can be created by the governor, lieutenant governor, the party nominees for both positions, and House and Senate leadership from both parties.
That leaves out Perdue, who is challenging the incumbent Kemp as a fellow Republican. Perdue’s lawyers Monday argued that limiting him to a maximum individual donation of $7,600 while Kemp can collect as much as he likes from his leadership fund is unfair and violates his free speech rights. They are asking U.S. District Court Judge Mark H. Cohen to stop the governor from spending any more of his leadership committee money.
Cohen did not reject the idea, but he took issue with Perdue’s lawyer’s complaint, which named Kemp as governor rather than chair of his leadership committee, Georgians First. Running the committee is not part of Kemp’s duties as governor, Cohen said, and he could not order Georgians First to stop spending unless they were named on the complaint. He gave Perdue’s lawyers until the end of the day Tuesday to amend their complaint and Kemp’s team until the end of the day Thursday to file a response.
Cohen remarked several times during the proceedings that the law creates two sets of rules for candidates in the same race and seemed to question its purpose.
“How did this happen in 2022 when it’s happened since 1986? What’s made it so horrible this session?” he asked. “If this is such a burden, why not ban all fundraising during the session?”
Kemp’s lawyers sought to convince the judge that Perdue does not have legal standing, arguing that his issue is not with the new law, but with Georgia’s fundraising limits. They said halting the law would limit Kemp’s free speech and that of those who want to donate to his leadership committee. It would leave Kemp unable to raise money until the end of session, set for April 4, the day before early voting starts, they said. And, they noted that he faces a serious challenge from a member of his own party — the first time that’s happened in Georgia in decades — and Perdue is backed by former President Donald Trump.
Cohen said he hopes to move the case along as quickly as possible once the lawyers amend their complaint, but he said that while he may decide to stop Kemp’s campaign from spending any more of the committee funds, there is essentially nothing he can do about the money that was already spent, including television ads for which the campaign has already paid that have not yet aired.
“You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube,” he said.
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