The Capitol at dusk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
With Republicans and Democrats alike reluctant to put limits on Virginia’s wide-open campaign finance system, money has been pouring into primary contests in what’s going to be a high-stakes election year.
And the batch of campaign finance numbers released this week seemed to have something for everyone not to like.
One week out from the June 8 primaries, here are four things that stood out in the latest reports, covering April 1 through May 27, as compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project.
Ayala flips on Dominion Energy money
One of the biggest surprises was the $100,000 from Dominion Energy’s PAC that showed up on the finance report from lieutenant governor candidate Hala Ayala, a state delegate who had promised not to take Dominion money but apparently reversed that stance in the final weeks of a competitive primary.
She had also already received $25,000 from anti-Dominion advocacy group Clean Virginia, which was founded by Charlottesville investor Michael Bills and makes donations explicitly to counter what it sees as Dominion’s outsized influence in the state legislature.
Ayala’s vow to reject Dominion donations dates back to her first campaign for the House when she agreed to an anti-Dominion pledge circulated by Activate Virginia, a minimally funded initiative run by progressive strategist Josh Stanfield. She later took the same stance in response to Clean Virginia and the money it started offering as an alternative to Dominion support, including specifying in a written questionnaire that her campaign for lieutenant governor would not accept Dominion contributions.
In a statement, Clean Virginia called Ayala’s move “uniquely disappointing and deceptive” and said it would launch a $125,000 digital ad campaign spotlighting Ayala’s “broken promise.”
“That is not leadership — it is desperation,” said Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore.
Asked to explain the change of heart, Ayala’s campaign issued a statement saying her “decisions in elected office have always been based on what’s best for Virginia families.” The statement did not mention the Dominion donations directly.
Ayala’s reversal didn’t go unnoticed by her opponents. In a news release, Sean Perryman, a former Fairfax County NAACP leader, said the lieutenant governor race is becoming “the embodiment of the need for campaign finance reform in Virginia.”
“Not only is Ayala allowing her campaign to be bought by Dominion, her campaign didn’t reveal this fact until six days before the election, leaving little time for voters to know of her broken promise,” Perryman said.
Power for Tomorrow, a Dominion-backed group that has recently targeted Clean Virginia, came to Ayala’s defense.
“Clean Virginia’s actions today demonstrate that their wealthy founder is used to getting his way and lashes out with penalties and attacks when he doesn’t,” said Gary Meltz, the group’s executive director.
One of Dominion’s most outspoken critics in the General Assembly, Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, is considered a top contender in the six-person Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. Rasoul, who has also been criticized for taking big checks from donors after previously saying he would refuse checks from individual donors bigger than $5,000, leads the field in fundraising.
Clean Virginia has said it supports several candidates for lieutenant governor but has not made an official endorsement in the race.
Clean Virginia-backed challengers outraise incumbents thanks to a few big funders
Two challengers trying to unseat incumbent House Democrats both reported raising more than $500,000 for the period, most of it coming from sources connected to Clean Virginia.
Pam Montgomery, running against new Del. Candi King, D-Prince William, reported raising a combined $545,200 from Clean Virginia, its affiliate Commonwealth Forward PAC and philanthropist Sonjia Smith, who is married to Bills. That made up about 93 percent of Montgomery’s fundraising for the period.
King reported raising roughly $165,000 in the same window, which included support from the House Democratic Caucus, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn’s PAC and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.
Challenger Nadarius Clark outraised incumbent Del. Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth, in similar fashion. Clark reported raising $500,628 for the period, with more than $465,000 coming from Clean Virginia-linked sources.
Heretick, one of the most centrist Democrats in the House, reported raising $314,928 for the period, including $90,000 from Dominion’s PAC.
Clean Virginia isn’t the only funder putting money into the newly formed Commonwealth Forward PAC. But it appears to be the major backer, transferring at least $925,000 to the PAC in May alone.
Some Democrats are getting increasingly vocal about pushing back against the huge sums of money being pumped into campaigns by one wealthy couple.
“I don’t want to say that they are changing the character of the caucus,” former House Democratic leader David Toscano said in a recent interview. “But if you start going after incumbents who have been there a while simply because they might have taken a contribution from Dominion, I think that’s really trying to impose your will in a way that I’ve got some concerns about.”
Heretick has served in the House since 2016. King won her seat in a January special election.
Youngkin follows through on his pledge to self-fund
Glenn Youngkin, the multi-millionaire Republican nominee for governor, dropped another $6.5 million of his personal fortune into his campaign account.
Part of Youngkin’s pitch to voters in the GOP’s convention last month was that as an ultra-rich former CEO, he could self-fund his campaign, allowing him to match or potentially exceed the fundraising prowess of Terry McAuliffe, the presumed frontrunner in the Democratic race.
Youngkin is following through on the pledge. The loans bring his total personal investment in the race to $12 million, a figure that accounts for 75 percent of his total fundraising since entering the race.
Youngkin’s campaign advertised the haul as “more than any Virginia Republican running for governor has ever raised at this point in the race.” The press release did not note that Youngkin had contributed nearly all of the money himself, instead touting “the generosity of more than 3,400 contributors representing 131 counties and cities in Virginia, plus supporters in 39 other states across America.”
Meanwhile, McAuliffe’s campaign reported raising $2.85 million heading into next week’s Democratic primary, bringing his total fundraising this year to $7 million.
McAuliffe, too, presented the haul as a sign of grassroots strength, touting that his donations this year had come from 22,000 donors in 133 cities and counties in Virginia.
“Our grassroots energy and support is exactly what we need to take on (a candidate who) pledged to buy the governor’s office and take our commonwealth backwards,” McAuliffe said in a statement.
In his own primary, McAuliffe is spending more than all his opponents combined. He reported more than $8 million in expenditures for the period, much of it on paid media such as TV and digital ads.
Former delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy spent a little more than $3 million in the same timeframe, while Sen. Jennifer McClellan spent about $1.4 million. Del. Lee Carter and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax trail far behind in the money race, spending $64,781 and $12,866 in the latest period, respectively.
Mystery group with ties to centrist PAC drops thousands to oust activist-turned-delegate
A mysterious PAC is pouring thousands into a political newcomer’s bid to oust Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax, an activist who has worked to fashion himself as one of the chamber’s most progressive members.
Irene Shin’s campaign reported nearly $120,000 in donations and in-kind contributions from the Democratic Principles PAC, a group with a barebones website that describes the organization only as a group “proud to support Virginia Democrats in primary elections who are committed to putting voters first.”
The group funded attack mailers, conducted polling and performed other key campaign functions on Shin’s behalf, according to a report filed by her campaign.
Shin’s campaign acknowledged the donations and said they were reported according to state law, but otherwise declined to discuss the contributions, referring questions about the group’s origins and interests to the PAC.
Leaders of the group did not respond to an email or other messages and a person living at the Richmond home listed in campaign disclosures would not comment.
The PAC appears to be tied to a national action committee called Unite America, which says it’s dedicated to boosting centrist candidates dedicated to bipartisanship. Unite America made the only donation reported to date to the pro-Shin PAC and the two groups also appear to share a staff member.
Unite America’s Virginia political director did not respond to an email seeking comment, but the group announced it planned to become active in state politics in 2019 and was a major supporter of the campaign to reform redistricting in Virginia
Samirah would be a logical target for a group dedicated to centrism. He’s perhaps best known for interrupting a speech by then-President Donald Trump during a commemoration at Jamestown. He’s often broken with his party in floor votes and criticized fellow Democrats for not backing progressive stands on issues like health care and climate change. And he was among a majority of House Democrats who opposed the new redistricting plan.
Editor’s note: Sonjia Smith made a $5,000 donation to States Newsroom, the Virginia Mercury’s parent organization, last year. Reader donations help the Mercury cover mileage, freelancers, public records requests and other extra costs. They never influence our news coverage. For more information on States Newsroom’s funding click here. See here for our ethics policy.
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