Judge hears arguments in challenge to new campaign funds law

ATLANTA (AP) — Lawyers for Georgia gubernatorial candidate David Perdue and Gov. Brian Kemp sparred in court Monday over a new state law that allows certain top elected officials to create “leadership committees” that can raise campaign funds without limits, even when the legislature is in session.

A lawyer for Perdue argued that the law gives Kemp a significant and unfair fundraising and spending advantage in the Republican primary. A lawyer for the governor countered that it levels the playing field because the governor would otherwise be unable to raise money during a critical period leading up to the primary.

Georgia law says candidates for statewide office can’t collect more than $7,600 from an individual donor for a primary or general election and $4,500 for a runoff election. Incumbent officeholders also may not accept contributions during the legislative session. But leadership committees created under the new law are free from both of those restrictions.

The ability to create a leadership committee under the new law is limited to the governor, lieutenant governor, a political party’s nominee for governor or lieutenant governor, and by the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the state House and Senate. Kemp’s campaign created the Georgians First Leadership Committee in July, just after the law took effect.

Perdue and his campaign filed a lawsuit earlier this month challenging the law, which “creates an unequal contribution limit for candidates in the same race” in violation of the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court precedent, his lawyer Stephen Obermeier argued in court. They’re asking U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen to stop the committee from continuing to raise and spend unlimited funds for Kemp while the litigation plays out.

Gene Schaerr, a lawyer for Kemp and other state officials, argued that granting Perdue’s request would “further tilt the playing field in his favor.” Kemp would be unable to raise money during the legislative session, which is currently set to wrap up just before early voting gets started for the May 24 primary while Perdue could be out there raising money, Schaerr said.

Cohen noted that the rule prohibiting incumbents from raising money during the legislative session — which is meant to protect against corruption — has been on the books for decades. He asked Schaerr what makes this year different that would make it so damaging for Kemp not to be able to raise money until the session is over.

Schaerr responded that there is more early voting now and that Perdue is a very serious challenger with the support of former President Donald Trump.

Cohen did seem receptive to the argument that the leadership committee creates a situation in which two people running for the same position are subject to different contribution limits.

But he seemed puzzled as to why Perdue and his campaign didn’t name Kemp’s leadership committee as a defendant. Even if he ultimately sides with Perdue, he said, it isn’t clear how he could order the committee not to spend money helping Kemp since it’s not currently a party to the lawsuit.

At the end of the hearing, Cohen said he would give lawyers for Perdue and his campaign a chance to amend their lawsuit and then would give lawyers for Kemp and other state officials a chance to respond before he rules.