ATLANTA (AP) — A federal judge expressed skepticism Monday that he can give Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams the immediate right to begin raising and spending unlimited campaign contributions under Georgia law.
U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen told a lawyer for Abrams’ gubernatorial campaign that she was asking him to rewrite state law to allow Abrams’ One Georgia committee to start taking money before the May 24 primary.
“The remedy you’re asking me to do, I’m uncomfortable with, because you’re asking me to rewrite the statute,” Cohen told lawyer Joyce Lewis during a hearing in Atlanta.
Cohen suggested that it would have “made more sense” if Abrams had demanded that the judge shut down the ability of incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp’s committee to raise money.
“Why are you not asking me to shut down Kemp’s leadership committee?” the judge asked.
Cohen said he would rule on Abrams’ request for an emergency order by the end of the week.
Cohen, in a challenge from Kemp’s Republican primary rival David Perdue, in February ordered Kemp’s committee not to spend any money in the Republican primary. Cohen said such spending would give Kemp an unfair advantage against the former U.S. senator because Perdue isn’t allowed a similar committee. Cohen, however, didn’t block Kemp’s committee from taking in money. It’s a temporary ruling while Perdue’s lawsuit challenges Kemp’s committee as unconstitutional. Kemp is appealing the ruling.
Like Perdue, Abrams says the new kind of fundraising committee created by Georgia lawmakers last year is unconstitutional. Called a leadership committee, it allows certain people and groups to accept unlimited contributions. Giving to regular candidate committees is limited to $7,600 apiece for the primary and general elections and $4,500 for any runoff election.
Under the law, the governor and lieutenant governor, opposing major party nominees, and both party caucuses in the state House and Senate can form the committees. The committees can coordinate with candidate campaigns, unlike most other political action committees. After signing the law, Kemp created the Georgians First Leadership Committee, raising $2.3 million through January.
Abrams set up a leadership committee called One Georgia after qualifying, arguing that because no one filed to run against her in the May 24 Democratic primary and because write-in votes are not allowed, she became the Democratic nominee when qualifying closed. State Democratic Party chair Nikema Williams, also a U.S. representative, agrees, saying the party recognizes Abrams as its standard bearer for the Nov. 8 general election.
Cohen, though, said state law doesn’t provide for declaring a nominee before a primary.
“The law of Georgia say she’s not the nominee,” he said.
Lewis argued that because Georgians First has already raised a large amount of money, and is still accepting contributions, “the toothpaste is out of the tube” in terms of preventing contributions. Instead, the Abrams campaign argues that One Georgia should be allowed to raise money freely and Cohen should order state ethics officials to not take enforcement action, at least for now.
“Every day we are not allowed to raise and the Kemp campaign is allowed to raise is a day we are on unequal footing,” Lewis said, noting that even if Kemp can’t spend now, he can “stockpile” money. “We are not asking for unequal treatment. We are asking for equal treatment.”
But Cohen said he questioned the wisdom of Abrams’ request to maintain a structure she argues is unconstitutional. Elizabeth Davis, a lawyer for the state, said no enforcement action is ongoing and enjoining the ethics body, properly known as the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, would be “overbroad and premature.”
She said letting Abrams raise and spend would “create its own version of an uneven playing field” because Kemp is blocked from spending and Perdue has no access to a leadership committee at all.