Outside Political Money Floods Virginia Races

Tens of millions of dollars are pouring into Virginia in hopes of swaying the governor's election there. If Democrat Terry McAuliffe wins, it could be a strong indicator that the once red, now purple state is shifting into the blue column.

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Virginia holds elections next month for state offices, including governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. But what was historically a pretty sedate affair is, this year, drawing millions of dollars from all over the country.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Time was when the candidates for governor campaigned across Virginia together, in the same car, even. But those days are long gone. The old dominion is an ideological battleground. It went for President Obama in 2008 and 2012, with Republican Governor Bob McDonnell elected in between. So this year, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe and Republican attorney general Ken Cuccinelli have already raised more than the candidates four years ago. And the money keeps pouring in.

JOHN MCGLENNON: All across the board, Virginia's attracting the kind of attention that it's not used to having.

OVERBY: That's John McGlennon, chairman of the government department at the College of William & Mary and a long-time observer of Virginia politics. For McAuliffe, nine of the top 10 donors are out-of-state groups. He's hitting up donors he's known since his days as a Democratic fundraiser. And his buddy, former President Bill Clinton, gave $100,000.

Cuccinelli trails in the money chase but actually has a higher percentage of money coming from out of state. Nearly $8 million from the Republican Governors Association, for starters. Other donors include conservative activist Foster Friess and the company owned by conservative activists David and Charles Koch.

Virginia lets corporations and unions give to candidates directly and without limit. But McGlennon says something's missing this year: big money from Virginia's business community.

MCGLENNON: Contributions by large business interests have actually declined. And a good part of that would be reflective of a lack of enthusiasm for the Republican ticket.

OVERBY: Cuccinelli has a fierce ideology. He's fought abortion, global warming research, and Obamacare. It doesn't sit well with the so-called Main Street money of Richmond-based corporations. And now, northern Virginia's defense contractors and high-tech firms have clout, as do defense firms and the hospitality industry around Norfolk. The result, McGlennon says...

MCGLENNON: In this election campaign, a lot of business interests appear to be sitting on their wallets.

OVERBY: The ideological battle shows even more sharply in the outside spending. For instance, Planned Parenthood is targeting Cuccinelli.

DAWN LAGUENS: We are using every means possible and that includes, of course, television ads that reach and touch millions of people.

OVERBY: But Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, says their real target audience is much smaller.

LAGUENS: There are probably 200,000 women in the, especially, Richmond and Norfolk areas who we are really focused on. We've already knocked on close to 50,000 doors in those areas.

OVERBY: Planned Parenthood has outspent the top-spending anti-abortion group, Women Speak Out Virginia, more than 8 to 1. Then there's the race for attorney general. With Cuccinelli trailing in the polls, Republicans are pinning more hopes on AG candidate Mark Obenshain. He faces Democrat Mark Herring. Their fundraising is almost even at about $4.5 million each.

This month, the D.C.-based Republican State Leadership Committee pumped $1.8 million into the Obenshain effort. RSLC president Chris Jankowski says they're aiming for a rerun of last year's elections in Montana and West Virginia.

CHRIS JANKOWSKI: Both of those states elected Republican attorney generals, despite the top of the ticket not performing as well.

OVERBY: Which is to say the GOP gubernatorial candidates lost and Virginia Republicans want to win at least one statewide race. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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