ATLANTA – Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams cannot immediately begin raising and spending unlimited campaign contributions under a state law passed last year because she is not yet her party's nominee, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
Abrams and her One Georgia committee filed a lawsuit last month challenging the constitutionality of the new law, which allows certain top elected officials and party nominees to create “leadership committees” that can raise campaign funds without limits. But they also asked the judge to order the state ethics commission not to take any action against them if they continue to raise money before the primary next month.
“This Court will not rewrite Georgia law to enable One Georgia to stand in the same shoes as a leadership committee that, in Plaintiffs' view, is operating in violation of the First Amendment,” U.S. District Judge Mark Cohen wrote in his order.
Abrams' campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo said after the ruling that it's even more important now for supporters to donate directly to the campaign.
The law allows the governor and lieutenant governor, opposing major party nominees, and both party caucuses in the state House and Senate to form leadership committees. Unlike traditional political action committees, they are allowed to coordinate with a candidate's campaign.
Leadership committees can also collect unlimited contributions, while candidates for statewide office cannot collect more than $7,600 from an individual donor for a primary or general election and $4,500 for a runoff election.
The lawsuit noted that the new law allows Republican Gov. Brian Kemp to raise unlimited funds while Abrams is constrained by the contribution limits.
Abrams is the only Democrat who qualified to run for governor, which means she is effectively the party's nominee, her lawyers argued. State party chair U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams submitted a sworn statement saying that Abrams is the party's nominee.
But state law is unambiguous in requiring a candidate to be selected in a primary election to be considered the nominee, Cohen wrote. Georgia's primary election is set for May 24.
Abrams and her committee could have followed the path chosen earlier this year by former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who is challenging Kemp in the Republican primary. Perdue sought to stop Kemp's leadership committee Georgians First from soliciting or receiving contributions and to stop it from spending money to promote his reelection.
Cohen ruled in February that Kemp could not spend any more money from the committee on his primary campaign. But he said the committee could continue to receive contributions and spend money in support of other public officials in accordance with campaign finance laws. Kemp has appealed the ruling.
Cohen wrote that Abrams and her committee chose an “untenable option” by asking to be allowed to raise unlimited funds under a law that they contend is unconstitutional. He also rejected the attempt to prevent a Georgia state agency from enforcing a law that says a nominee for governor is chosen in a primary.
Cohen's ruling was not a surprise. He was clearly skeptical of Abrams' requests at a hearing earlier this week.