‘This is unprecedented’: Last-minute money floods Virginia campaigns ahead of Nov. 5

October 31, 2019

The Washington Post: ‘This is unprecedented’: Last-minute money floods Virginia campaigns ahead of Nov. 5

By: Gregory S. Schneider 

Last-minute money is rolling into Virginia’s state legislative races with just days to go before next week’s elections, as national groups escalate some totals to the level of congressional contests.

Democrat Nancy Guy hauled in more than $400,000 just since last Friday, the bulk of it coming on Wednesday from an environmental group founded by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Guy is challenging Republican Del. Christopher P. Stolle in a Virginia Beach district plagued by sea level rise, and the money went for a television ad.

Bloomberg’s Beyond Carbon action fund also delivered almost $265,000 in TV advertising for Democrat Shelly Simonds of Newport News, challenging incumbent Del. David E. Yancey in another waterfront district in Hampton Roads.

Those amounts might have been a full year’s haul in past elections.

“This is unprecedented,” said one Democratic consultant, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the topic of contributions is sensitive within campaigns. “This is kind of the new normal in the age of Donald Trump, where a lot of outside money can flow into a state . . . like Virginia where donations are unlimited.”

Virginia’s campaign finance laws, some of the loosest in the country, place no restrictions on how much donors can give.

The most expensive race in the state is shaping up to be the contest between incumbent Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant and Democratic challenger Del. Debra Rodman in Henrico County just outside Richmond. They have reported raising more than $2.5 million apiece, and counting.

Of the 24 candidates who ran in Virginia’s 11 congressional elections last year, only five raised more than Rodman’s $2.7 million, according to records kept by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.

Outside money is pouring into both parties, but particularly Democrats, who are hoping to take majorities in both the House of Delegates and state Senate. All 140 seats are on the ballot, with Republicans protecting slight majorities of 51-48 in the House and 20-19 in the Senate; each chamber has one vacancy.

With Gov. Ralph Northam (D), a Democratic General Assembly would enable the party to consolidate power over state government for the first time in a generation. Party leaders have promised tofocus on priorities such as gun control, abortion rights protections and passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and national groups that support those causes have plunged into the campaigns.

Virginia is also the only state in the country where the legislature’s balance of power is at stake this fall, so it serves as a tuneup for next year’s presidential contest.

The single biggest donor this cycle has been the Republican State Leadership Committee, which helps Republicans win and hold control of state legislatures across the country. It has given more than $3 million dollars to GOP candidates and committees in Virginia this year, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.

“While Democrats are being supported by small-dollar donations and advocacy groups, Republicans are almost exclusively relying on special interests,” said Matt Harringer, spokesman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. He cited House majority leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), whose largest contributor by far is the NRA.

Charlottesville hedge fund executive Michael Bills and his wife, Sonjia Smith, have been major benefactors for Democrats. Giving separately, the pair have donated more than $1.8 million to candidates for House and Senate seats over the course of the year. Bills and his group Clean Virginia have urged candidates to reject money from the state’s biggest utility, Dominion Energy, and advocate a renewable energy agenda.

Emily’s List, the national group for women in politics, has given about $1.2 million to Democratic candidates this year, mostly on the House side.

But few outsiders have made as big an impact as Bloomberg, the former Republican mayor who has become a crusader for gun control and climate.

Everytown for Gun Safety, founded by Bloomberg, has given more than $2.5 million to help Democrats get elected.

That has included $770,000 in digital advertising, nearly half a million in direct mail, $250,000 for polling and more than $300,000 in TV ads for candidates in suburban districts in Hampton Roads, Richmond and Northern Virginia.

The total far outweighs the $350,000 contributed to Republicans this year by the National Rifle Association, though that group has outsize influence through its extensive network of grass-roots members.

In addition to funding from the two groups he founded, Bloomberg made a personal donation of $110,000 to the Democratic Party of Virginia on Tuesday.

Republicans have criticized the heavy spending by Bloomberg and other interest groups as an attempt to control Virginia politics. Bloomberg could not be reached for comment, but John Feinblatt, president of Everytown, said the group has focused on an issue that Virginians care about.

“Every poll says this is the number one issue in the commonwealth,” Feinblatt said. “What we’re doing is helping uncover who stands for gun safety and who stands for the gun lobby.”

He said the efforts in Virginia are “a preview of what’s to come in 2020 when you’ll see, I think, gun safety play out over and over again in race after race.”

The big donations this week from Beyond Carbon were the first in Virginia from that group, which Bloomberg formed this year to advocate for clean energy. They were in-kind contributions in the form of television ads. Republicans said they showed that Democrats are nervous about Tuesday’s elections.

“It’s certainly not a sign of confidence. It also shows how little this group knows about Virginia,” said Garren Shipley, spokesman for House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah). He argued that one targeted Republican — Stolle of Virginia Beach — is “one of the leading voices on fighting flooding and sea level rise.”

The last-minute donations have come since Oct. 24, the final deadline for campaign finance reporting before the Nov. 5 elections. Besides the Bloomberg money, many of the late donations came from state or federal party organizations on both sides. Some of it highlights marquee races, such as House speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), who is defending his seat in a district redrawn this year under court order. Cox, who faces Democratic challenger Sheila ­Bynum-Coleman, picked up more than $70,000 this week alone, while Bynum-Coleman raked in almost $129,000 in that time.

Other big amounts went to less obvious races, showing that Democrats think they might expand the map and push for big electoral margins on Tuesday. Democrat Phil Hernandez hauled in $119,000 in the past two days to challenge incumbent Del. Robert S. Bloxom Jr. (R-Accomack) in what should be a solid red seat on the Eastern Shore. Bloxom picked up $71,000 to fend him off.

And in Virginia Beach, Democrat Len Myers reported a last-minute infusion of $183,000 — mostly from the state party or fellow Democrats — in his long-shot bid to unseat incumbent Del. Barry D. Knight, who reported a late bump of $7,500.