WASHINGTON (CN) — Amid reports that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis plans to officially enter the race for president next week, a federal judge ruled supporters cannot send him a petition urging him to run because it would violate campaign finance laws.
Ready for Ron, a political action committee that considers DeSantis the “Next Great American President,” asked the judge for an injunction allowing them to send the petition, including the names and contact information of those who signed, after the Federal Election Commission blocked it.
U.S. District Judge Randolph D. Moss, a Barack Obama appointee, agreed with the FEC Wednesday evening that the petition was effectively a contact list, “something of value,” and would therefore exceed campaign contribution limits.
“The FEC’s conclusion that RFR’s contact list constitutes a ‘contribution’ under [the Federal Election Campaign Act] is ‘not only reasonable but also the best interpretation of the statute,’” Moss wrote in his 60-page opinion.
Attorneys for Ready for Ron disagreed with the decision and said it was “certainly not the end” of the litigation. They said the ruling denied the signatories their right to express their political views.
“Speech is not money, and should not be regulated as such,” said Dan Backer, an attorney with Chalmers, Adams, Backer & Kaufman.
Moss rejected that argument, writing that if the inclusion of the petition negated the monetary value the contact list held, it would make campaign finance laws toothless, comparing it to a donor gifting an airplane.
“The hypothetical airplane … is still an airplane (and still an in-kind contribution), even if the donor stencils a ‘petition’ on the back of every seat,” the judge said. “So too with contact lists.” (Parentheses in original.)
The FEC declined to comment on the decision.
The petition’s website warns visitors that “America is in grave danger from the Radical Left and their failed, socialist, woke policies,” calling on them to sign and “let Ron know [you’re] behind him and want to join his team.”
According to court documents, each signature has a market value of 5 cents, and with over 200,000 signatures thus far, the petition is worth over $10,000, well beyond contribution limits.
The FECA limits campaign contributions at $3,300 per individual – which includes political committees – when the recipient is officially a candidate. The law makes a slight exception when the recipient is still “testing the waters,” allowing contributions up to $5,000.
Court documents show that the committee has said it expects to garner over a million signatures, which would inflate the value of the petition to approximately $50,000.
The FEC also denied the committee’s request because the petition was created in part with “soft money” or general funds that can be gifted to political parties, not individual candidates.
The committee has refused to cut the contact information from the petition – which both the FEC and Moss said would allow them to send it to the governor – arguing that the information was necessary in order to “demonstrate to Gov. DeSantis the signatures are authentic,” an apparent reference to debunked claims that the 2020 election was stolen using fraudulent votes.
“People have the right to speak freely and to tell candidates that they support them directly,” Backer said.
The decision comes after reporting by the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal that DeSantis will officially announce his candidacy at an event in Dunedin, Florida, sometime next week.
DeSantis’ name has loomed over the Republican primary for months now and he is considered the strongest alternative to former President Donald Trump, but recent polling has shown Trump pulling ahead of DeSantis in the eyes of likely Republican primary voters.
A Wall Street Journal poll from April projects Trump winning a 48% of a 12-person primary, with DeSantis next taking 24% of those votes. In a head-to-head match, the poll projects Trump garnering 51% of the vote, compared to 38% for DeSantis.
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