Outside Money Plays Big Role In Va. Race For Governor

Far-flung billionaires played a big role in the Virginia gubernatorial race. San Francisco environmentalist Tom Steyer and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent more than $2 million each to help elect Democrat Terry McAuliffe as governor.

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Two of the big winners in Virginia's elections this week were not on the ballot. They actually aren't even Virginians. They are two men who spent more than $2 million each to help elect Democrat Terry McAuliffe as governor.

NPR's Peter Overby reports on the Election Day impact of San Francisco environmentalist Tom Steyer and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Tom Steyer made his fortune as a hedge-fund manager. But in the past few years, he's started funding issue campaigns against the Keystone XL pipeline, and for action on global warming. In Virginia this year, that meant trying to defeat McAuliffe's Republican opponent, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

Final numbers aren't in yet. Steyer may have spent $2.5 million, most of it in Southwest Virginia's solidly conservative coal country. Steyer put his cash into a Super PAC called NextGen Climate Action. There were soft-sell ads about Cuccinelli's performance in a legal battle...

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: An attorney general is paid by the taxpayers to stick up for us, not an out-of-state energy company that gave him a bunch of money. Ken Cuccinelli cares more about campaign contributions than what's right or wrong.

OVERBY: ...and there were hard-sell ads.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Investigations, gifts, scandals - Ken Cuccinelli's not for us. NextGen Climate Action Committee sponsored this ad.

OVERBY: Steyer also paid for canvassers, direct mail, and other tools of the political trade. Cuccinelli carried the coal counties, but not as handily as Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell did four years ago.

Steyer's political adviser is Democratic consultant Chris Lehane.

CHRIS LEHANE: I think we did play a very, very important - if not decisive - role in Virginia. And Tom deserves an enormous amount of credit for it.

OVERBY: Lehane describes the energy industry as a Goliath, and Steyer as one guy with a good slingshot.

LEHANE: What Tom Steyer spent in this race, you know, the fossil fuel industry probably spends in 15 minutes, every day, you know, every single day of the year.

OVERBY: Which may be true. On the other hand, the energy and natural resources sector only gave Cuccinelli's campaign a bit more than $1 million.

Also going after Cuccinelli was billionaire Michael Bloomberg. He's pumping money and energy into gun-control advocacy as his final term as New York City mayor winds down. Bloomberg's Independence USA Super PAC spent $2 million on ads. They challenged Cuccinelli's stance on unregulated gun-show purchases and other weak spots in the gun laws.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: ...Siding with the NRA, and undermining law enforcement...

OVERBY: Big-spending Super PACs evolved quickly after several court decisions in 2010, including the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. The single-donor Super PAC is an even newer creation. Mary Boyle is a spokeswoman for Common Cause, a group advocating tighter rules on political money. She says donors like Steyer and Bloomberg are savvy business people, and they're making investments.

MARY BOYLE: They are going to be expecting a return. And, you know, with that kind of money, they are likely to get it.

OVERBY: She says that puts them in a special class.

BOYLE: The concern is that, you know, the people of Virginia - people who can't give that kind of money - are not getting the kind of access and influence that these two men will.

OVERBY: If Cuccinelli was hoping for one or two deep-pocketed conservatives to match Steyer and Bloomberg, he was out of luck. No other Super PAC in the race spent even half as much as either of these liberals did.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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