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FEC Rules Kelly Can’t Raise Funds for State Candidates

July 16, 2021 by Dan McCue
Rep. Robin Kelly

Rep. Robin Kelly can remain chairwoman of the Illinois Democratic Party, but must insulate herself from all fundraising for non federal candidates in the state, the Federal Election Commission ruled Thursday.

Kelly, a member of Congress since 2013, is also prohibited from using her name and title on state fundraising solicitations because, as a federal officeholder, she is bound by federal laws on raising campaign cash that are stricter than those of the state.

The FEC had not previously issued guidance on how a federal office holder can lead a state or local political party and ensure compliance with federal campaign finance laws.

In a 5-1 ruling, the FEC said the state Democratic Party must create a special committee to oversee state fundraising for state and local campaigns with no involvement by Kelly. 

In the lead up to the vote, FEC Commissioner Trey Trainor said the panel action would essentially turn the party chairmanship in Illinois “into a purely honorary role, without the power to direct a very large portion of the activities that the Democratic Party of Illinois engages in.” 

Even after the vote Commissioner Ellen Weintraub said she still had concerns about whether it could allow federal candidates and officeholders to skirt soft money restrictions.

The Democratic Party of Illinois sought an expedited decision on the matter to avoid any complications as it prepares for the 2022 elections. 

Members of the Democratic party currently hold all of the statewide offices in Illinois, as well as majorities in the General Assembly and congressional delegation. 

Those offices, as well as Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s seat, are on next year’s ballot.

The party suspended raising contributions outside federal limits until questions about Kelly’s fundraising role were resolved, lawyers for the Democrats told the FEC Thursday.

Kelly can raise money for U.S. House and Senate candidates in her role as party chair because fundraising for those offices falls under the same federal rules that she is governed by as a member of Congress. 

But fundraising for federal offices represents a small part of the state party’s activities.

It has been estimated that over 80% of funds raised by the state party go to state and local candidates.

Kelly was elected by top state Democrats March 3 to replace embattled former House Speaker Michael Madigan as party chair. 

Madigan, who was the longest serving state House speaker in the country, resigned in February after 50 years in the legislature, after being tainted by a corruption scandal. To date, he has not been charged and he denies wrongdoing.

After the FEC acted, Kelly issued a statement in which she said the advisory opinion “affirms my vision for a new Democratic Party of Illinois that encourages more voices to be involved in all aspects of the party.”

“As the first woman and first woman of color elected to chair DPI, I believe that a broader coalition of perspectives can only strengthen our party and help us elect more Democrats up and down the ballot,” Kelly said.

Illinois Democrats, like other state party committees, ordinarily raise both federally regulated “hard money” and state-regulated soft money, including contributions in amounts greater than FEC limits, as well as corporate and union funds. 

Kelly isn’t the first or only congressperson to serve as chair of a state party. 

Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Ga., is currently  chair of the Georgia Democratic Party and Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., was chair of the Colorado Republican Party.

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