Mystery groups spend thousands trashing GOP candidates for governor

By: - April 15, 2021 12:04 am
An anti-Pete Snyder mailer funded by the Commonwealth Conservative Fund.

An anti-Pete Snyder mailer funded by the Commonwealth Conservative Fund.

In Virginia Cornerstone PAC’s video ads, Glenn Youngkin is an out-of-touch elitist whose global investment firm did business in China and paid Hillary Clinton $200,000 in speaking fees.

In mailers sent out by the Commonwealth Conservative Fund, Pete Snyder, aka “Sneaky Pete,” is a RINO who once said Donald Trump sounded like a “racist jerk.”

On the First Principles Fund website, Kirk Cox is a career politician, phony conservative and a “lead architect” of Medicaid expansion in Virginia.

Who’s behind the vaguely named groups spending thousands to attack three of the leading Republican candidates for governor?

Good luck finding out.

The GOP nominating contest is the latest example of how lax campaign finance rules allow outside groups to try to influence Virginia elections without leaving much of a trail showing who’s doing it.

On Wednesday, Cox’s campaign called attention to new anti-Youngkin mailers that it said created the false impression Cox was behind them by listing a return address in Colonial Heights, his hometown, and mimicking the name of his leadership PAC.

This is the latest in a series of attacks launched by shadowy PACs that are potentially violating the letter and spirit of Virginia’s campaign finance laws,” Cox said. “Nearly every candidate in this race has been subjected to some kind of attack from a shadowy front group set up specifically to shield the individuals responsible for the ads. Every candidate in this race should disavow these tactics.”

The outside groups involved have varying levels of transparency, with some filing official paperwork with the state and others seemingly operating outside the rules altogether.

Virginia Cornerstone PAC has reported spending more than $141,000 on ads against Youngkin, the former Carlyle Group CEO trying to break into state politics after stepping away from the business world. The group hasn’t reported spending money on anything other than attacking Youngkin.

The only two funding sources the PAC has identified in state filings are the similarly ill-defined Better Jobs Coalition, an independent expenditure committee based in Colorado, and the Fairfax-based nonprofit Americans for Limited Government.

Youngkin has publicly accused Snyder of being connected to the effort.

“I think that the Pete Snyder campaign should go ahead and acknowledge that they’re doing this,” Youngkin said in a recent radio interview on WRVA’s Jeff Katz Show. “This is why people hate politics. Because of this kind of underhanded … through secret corporations kind of stuff.”

Virginia Cornerstone PAC is run by GOP consultant Chris Jankowski, a former executive director of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which works to help Republicans win state races. 

In an interview, Jankowski insisted his PAC is acting on its own.

“This is a completely independent expenditure,” he said. “And we are not working for or on behalf of any campaign.”

The Snyder campaign also denied involvement in the anti-Youngkin ads and accused Youngkin of being behind the anti-Snyder ads.

“It is common knowledge that Glenn Youngkin has funded and bragged about a super PAC, the Commonwealth Conservative Fund, which is responsible for the negative, dishonest smears against Republicans running for office,” said Snyder campaign spokeswoman Lenze Morris.

The Youngkin campaign accused Snyder of “trying to rig the process every step of the way.”

“Voters clearly know that this is yet another desperate smear attempt from Snyder, who seems to have no problem lying and cheating,” said Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter.

An anti-Glenn Youngkin mailer funded by a group called Patriot Leadership Trust, which former Speaker Kirk Cox was an underhanded attempt to mirror his Colonial Leadership Trust PAC.
An anti-Glenn Youngkin mailer funded by a group called Patriot Leadership Trust, which former Speaker Kirk Cox was an underhanded attempt to mirror his Colonial Leadership Trust PAC.

 

Jankowski’s anti-Youngkin PAC has had to disclose some of its activity because it registered with the State Board of Elections as a Virginia-focused committee. The other two groups are registered as federal entities, meaning they’re under no obligation to file campaign finance reports with the state disclosing their backers.

The Commonwealth Conservative Fund has disclosed spending roughly $33,300 on ads against Snyder. The group registered as a super PAC with the Federal Election Commission on March 8, according to FEC records. The group’s state filings indicate it started running ads against Snyder just a few days later. Because federal PACs have a different timeline for filing campaign finance reports, the anti-Snyder group won’t have to reveal its funding sources until its mid-year report this summer, after Republican voters choose their nominee at a May 8 convention.

Attacking Snyder seems to be the group’s sole purpose. The web address listed as its official site redirects visitors to www.sneakypetesnyder.com.

Neither the Commonwealth Conservative Fund nor the First Principles Fund returned messages seeking comment.

Jankowski said he agrees Virginia law makes it too easy to create a federal PAC to avoid having to make campaign finance disclosures in a timely manner, a problem he said could be fixed by tougher state laws requiring outside groups to file more information with the state.

“The state has complete authority to change that,” he said.

State law requires any person or group planning to spend more than $200 on a non-federal Virginia election to register with the Department of Elections. Anyone who spends $1,000 or more on messages advocating for or against a specific candidate for statewide office is supposed to file an independent expenditure report with the state within 24 hours, a requirement the groups spending in the GOP race haven’t been particularly diligent about following. 

Federally registered PACs involved in state races have to file a general form listing their contact information and treasurer. But they’re only required to file campaign finance reports with the Federal Election Commission, not the state.

The anti-Cox First Principles Fund is even murkier. Though some entities have registered in the past with similar names, no group with that name has filed paperwork with the state detailing its spending to influence the GOP contest.

The state has a formal complaint process for political ads that lack the required disclosure showing who paid for it, but there is no equivalent mechanism for ads coming from outside groups intent on secrecy. Complaints can be filed with commonwealth’s attorneys, but prosecutors are generally reluctant to use their offices to police seemingly minor political squabbles.

There haven’t been any major attack-ad campaigns directed at Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, who frequently makes headlines on her own, and no one has suggested her campaign has had a role in any of the ads against others.

There also don’t appear to be any shadowy attacks in the Democratic primary for governor, though were was a similar effort in the 2017 contest between now-Gov. Ralph Northam and former congressman Tom Perriello.

Near the end of that race, a group calling itself Virginians for a Better Future spent $184,000 against Perriello, but Northam and other Democratic leaders said they didn’t know who was behind it. At the time, Northam called publicly for the dark-money ads to stop. The group, which was exempt from campaign finance laws because it was organized itself as a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization as opposed to a political committee, didn’t pull them down.

A screenshot of an anti-Kirk Cox website funded by the First Principles Fund.
A screenshot of an anti-Kirk Cox website funded by the First Principles Fund.

Cox’s campaign said some of the groups involved in the Republican race are “potentially operating in violation of Virginia law.”

“One thing I’ve tried to do in this business is always be honest with people, and it’s frustrating to me — and to Virginians — when others aren’t,” Cox said.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]

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