In Virginia Politics, 'It Costs A Lot Of Money Now Just To Lose' Some Republicans took out personal loans and relied on small donations from interest groups to fund their campaigns. Ultimately, many of them did not see a return on their investment.
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NPR logo In Virginia Politics, 'It Costs A Lot Of Money Now Just To Lose'

In Virginia Politics, 'It Costs A Lot Of Money Now Just To Lose'

A number of Democrats had big fundraising advantages in the 2019 General Assembly elections. Some Republicans, including Randy Minchew, a candidate for the House of Delegates in Loudoun County, self-funded his campaign. Minchew ultimately lost. Daniella Cheslow/WAMU hide caption

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Daniella Cheslow/WAMU

Virginia's General Assembly elections were dramatic this time around — and expensive. Thanks to strong national interest and lenient campaign finance rules, several races attracted more funding than contests for U.S. Congress, with one ranking as the most expensive House of Delegates race in Virginia history.

While out-of-state organizations and private donors poured in millions of dollars — mostly to Democratic candidates — some hopefuls made deep investments in their own campaigns. Many of those self-funded campaigns ended in disappointment.

Republican Paul Milde loaned himself $481,784 to win a GOP primary, aiming to represent Fredericksburg in the House of Delegates; he lost to Democrat Joshua Cole. Randy Minchew, also a Republican, loaned $150,000 of his own money to his campaign to retake his old seat from Democrat Wendy Gooditis in Loudoun County; he ultimately lost. Democrat Mavis Taintor spent $22,056 on her bid to represent parts of Loudoun County and Frederick County; she lost to Dave LaRock, the only Republican Delegate remaining from Northern Virginia.

"It shows it costs a lot of money now just to lose," said former U.S. Congressman Tom Davis, a Republican.

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Speaking recently on WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi Show, Davis added, "Most Republicans were being outspent in the House [of Delegates] and [state] Senate as Democrats from across the country piled on. It's not that Republicans don't have the resources, they just didn't put them into Virginia."

Some self-funders met success; Republican Bill DeSteph loaned $102,620 to his own campaign and fended off a challenge from Democrat Missy Cotter-Smasal in Virginia Beach. Others flamed out spectacularly, even on local elections. Democrat Tim Chapman spent nearly $1 million in an unsuccessful primary bid for Fairfax County Supervisor Chair, which he lost to Jeff McKay.

Strong Interest, No Contribution Limits

This year's pricey elections were a result of several intersecting forces that made Virginia's state legislative races both closely watched and unusually expensive.

Virginia is one of only a few states to hold elections in off-off years, and both parties saw this year's vote as a bellwether for the 2020 presidential race. Virginia had already drawn national attention after Democrats shrank the majority in the House of Delegates in 2017 by flipping 15 seats, political scientist Rosalyn Cooperman at the University of Mary Washington noted.

"You've immediately raised the stakes for the next election because Democrats came within a whisker of taking both the House of Delegates and the state Senate," Cooperman said. "You're coming into an election cycle that's going to raise the profile of these races."

In addition, Virginia's campaign finance laws are far more permissive than most other states. They're also lenient compared to the rules for running for U.S. Congress, where the Federal Election Commission limits individual contributions to $2,800 per candidate, per election. Candidates can receive up to $5,000 a year from a political action committee if it has more than 50 donors and contributes to at least five federal office candidates, according to Judith Ingram, a spokeswoman for the FEC. There's no limit on personal financing of campaigns for Congress. Virginia requires only that candidates disclose the source of their funds. Those amounts and donors are searchable on the Virginia Public Access Project.

Both because of the high stakes this year and because there are no limits on campaign contributions, individual donors and outside groups spent a torrent on this election.

Pro-environment donors, including hedge fund manager Michael Bills, donated a total of $6 million; that's four times what the environmental lobby spent in 2015, the last time all the seats of the General Assembly were on the ballot. Groups advocating abortion rights spent $3 million this cycle compared to $1.3 million four years ago.

Gun control groups donated $1.6 million this year and far outspent gun rights advocates, donated about $600,000. Technically, gun-control donations were higher in 2015; however, the donor behind Everytown for Gun Safety, Michael Bloomberg, also donated $110,000 to the Democratic Party of Virginia and about $600,000 via his Beyond Carbon Action Fund to Democrats who flipped House of Delegate seats in Virginia Beach and Newport News.

"The NRA put a paltry amount of money from what I can see into these races compared to Michael Bloomberg and some of the other groups," Davis said. "That is a shift from what we've seen in the past when the NRA would basically come in and kind of own these things."

The outside money was mirrored by the funding disparity between the parties on the state level. The Democratic Party of Virginia donated $5.8 million to candidates; the Republican Party of Virginia spent $3.8 million. The Virginia Senate Republican Caucus spent $2.2 million, less than half of the $5.5 million donated by the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus.

Is Campaign Finance Reform On The Democratic Agenda?

A number of Democrats have spoken out about reforming campaign finance rules in Virginia, but it is unclear whether they will use their new power to enact reforms. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, "has long advocated for campaign finance reform," his spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky wrote to WAMU. "As part of his 2019 legislative agenda, he pushed to cap campaign contributions at $10K, prohibit direct contributions from corporations to candidates and ban the personal use of campaign funds." That effort was unsuccessful.

Democrats will elect a Speaker of the House of Delegates this weekend; Del. Eileen Filler-Corn of Springfield, the current minority leader, is considered a front-runner. Asked about campaign finance reform, a spokeswoman for Filler-Corn wrote to WAMU, "This is an issue she will discuss with caucus so is not ready to outline any specifics right now."

Del. Lashrecse Aird, who represents the suburbs of Richmond, is also a contender to be elected Speakers. She released a 14-page plan of action for the House, but it does not mention campaign finance reform.

This year, a race in Fairfax County broke Virginia's fundraising record for a House of Delegates election. Republican incumbent Tim Hugo and his Democratic challenger Dan Helmer raised a combined $3.6 million between 2018 and 2019; Helmer lagged behind slightly in contributions, but ultimately triumphed on election night.

Asked on the Kojo Nnamdi Show whether he would change campaign finance laws once in office, Helmer said, "we need to end the no-limit donations to campaigns."

Helmer said Virginia should emulate U.S. House of Representatives regulations on campaign finance. He added that the state should curb the ability of utilities like Dominion Energy to pump money into elections. Dominion donated $1.1 million to candidates in the General Assembly in 2018 and 2019 together, giving slightly more to Democratic campaigns.

"We need to look at the whole package of ways in which our campaigns are financed collectively," Helmer said. "We now have the responsibility that comes with being in control of the General Assembly."

"He may be sincere about it," said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School at George Mason University. "Quite possibly [Helmer] needed to spend the money to get there in order to reform the system. But if history is any guide, people who claim they're going to fundamentally change the system that benefits them rarely do it."

Not every race was determined by which candidate raised the most money. However, it's clear that those who didn't attract big donors or have the means to invest heavily in their own campaigns were at a substantial disadvantage. In Fairfax County, Republican Steve Adragna challenged Democratic Del. Kathy Tran. Her campaign appeared vulnerable when she sponsored a bill to ease restrictions on third-term abortions; Republicans seized on her comments as legalizing "infanticide." And yet, Adragna received barely any state money besides $1,000 from House Speaker Kirk Cox's committee. He put about $6,200 of his own money into a campaign and was his biggest donor; he got smaller donations from gun rights groups, anti-abortion groups and local Republican organizations. In total, he had about $70,000 in his coffers.

Adragna lost badly to Tran, who raised more than half a million dollars, including $121,753 from the Democratic Party of Virginia. Adragna did not respond to a WAMU request for comment.

"Do I have any regrets? Not really," Adragna wrote in a Facebook post. "I stood up for what I believe in, and we ran a pretty effective campaign with the resources we had. We can have a conversation sometime about why more resources weren't available, but the fact remains that a majority of Fairfax voters was willing to overlook all the things we pointed out and to support the platform that the other party offered."

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