After years of bipartisan giving, Dominion Energy leans into Democratic control

By: - October 26, 2021 12:04 am

Dominion Energy offices in Richmond, Va. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Dominion Energy’s political giving in Virginia has surged into the millions this year, and Democrats are the biggest beneficiaries, with donations totaling more than $1.8 million so far this cycle, according to campaign finance records compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project.

Republicans, meanwhile, have received just over $1 million from the influential electric utility, the records show.

The figures represent a substantial increase over past donations — which for two decades have typically hovered in the $300,000-per-year range — and a break from the company’s old approach of generally giving similar amounts of money to Republicans and Democrats, especially in gubernatorial election years.

The shift comes even as the vast majority of Democrats running for office this year have pledged to reject Dominion’s donations, prompting the company to go to lengths to direct money to candidates who have publicly said they would not solicit or accept the energy utility’s contributions.

The most high-profile example came last week, when campaign finance disclosures showed Dominion contributed at least $250,000 to a PAC supporting Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe, who said earlier this year that he wouldn’t take the company’s contributions. The donation triggered a vocal backlash from Republicans upon learning it was used in an effort to suppress GOP turnout in rural areas by running ads questioning Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin’s support of gun rights.

Unless the company changes course in the final days of the race, this will be the first gubernatorial election since at least 1997 that the utility won’t have made substantial contributions to both major party candidates for governor, according to records compiled by VPAP.

Youngkin does not appear to have taken a stance on Dominion donations and his campaign did not answer questions about whether he had solicited or been offered any support from the company. Dominion also declined to comment.

But after the contributions to the pro-McAuliffe PAC were revealed, Youngkin offered harsh words for the utility, which has for years enjoyed support from leaders in both political parties.

“They want to keep Terry McAuliffe because they know they have somebody that they can they can manipulate and Terry is bought and sold by them,” Youngkin said during a recent radio interview, criticizing the company for overcharging its captive customer base. “I'm going to stand up to Dominion Energy and say, ‘This is Virginians’ money.’”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, left, and his Republican rival, Glenn Youngkin, are hitting on national political themes in their race. (Virginia Mercury)

It was not the first time this year Dominion took a back-door approach to supporting a Democratic candidate who has publicly eschewed their donations. Attorney General Mark Herring announced in 2018 he wouldn’t accept donations from publicly regulated monopolies like Dominion. But during a hard-fought primary in which Herring faced a challenger who pledged a more aggressive stance on the company, Dominion made $200,000 in donations to the Democratic Attorneys General Association, which in turn was backing Herring.

The donations, which remained secret during the primary because of disclosure deadlines, were first publicly reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch in August — a month after the election.

The company has also stroked bigger and bigger checks to Democratic leaders in the House of Delegates and the political action committees they control — contributions that in past years topped out in the $30,000 range but now regularly exceed $100,000.

Much of that money also eventually makes its way to helping candidates who have pledged to refuse donations from the utility.

According to Clean Virginia, a rival PAC founded by multi-millionaire Michael Bills to counter Dominion’s influence in Virginia, 75 percent of the House’s 55 Democratic members have said they won’t accept Dominion’s money.

The House Democratic Caucus’s PAC, however, counts Dominion as one of its largest donors, receiving $350,000 so far this year, according to VPAP. And more of the company’s money gets funneled into the account through caucus leadership, who collected more than $400,000 this year from Dominion.

Those leaders, few of whom face competitive races of their own, in turn make their own donations to the caucus PAC.

Sometimes the money only takes a few days to move from one account to the next. For instance, the party’s House Appropriation’s chair, Del. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, reported a $100,000 check from Dominion on Sept. 6. Three days later, the caucus PAC reported receiving a $100,000 donation from Torian. The pattern repeated itself later in the month, when Torian reported a $50,000 check from Dominion on Sept. 22 and a day later the caucus received a $50,000 check from Torian, according to VPAP.

Political observers said they weren’t particularly surprised to see Dominion directing more money to Democrats in the legislature after the party won full control of the General Assembly in 2019 for the first time in more than two decades.

As for the substantial increase in the size of the company’s donations, veteran Virginia political commentator Bob Holsworth views it as the company’s response to Bills’ Clean Virginia, founded with the explicit goal of countering Dominion’s in the legislature by guaranteeing donations to candidates who don’t take the company’s money.

A campaign ad run by a Dominion Energy-backed PAC on Facebook, which attempted to boost Democrat Terry McAuliffe by targeting rural GOP voters with questions about Glenn Youngkin's support for gun rights.

Bills, already a prolific donor, became the largest individual campaign contributor in the state until this year, when he was eclipsed by Youngkin, a fellow multimillionaire who is partially self-funding his gubernatorial campaign.

“Dominion looked like a gorilla, and then all of a sudden, you had an individual who could look at his own balance sheet and say, ‘A couple of million is a drop in the bucket. I can match that,” Holsworth said. “That’s a new environment for them.”

More surprising, Holsworth said, was Dominion’s decision to go all-in on McAuliffe after years of supporting both sides in gubernatorial races. He said he found the decision especially unusual in such a close race.

“Maybe that’s, in part, because McAuliffe is running for his second term and is seen as essentially an incumbent,” Holsworth said. “They know who they’re getting.”

Dominion spokesman Rayhan Daudani said the company would not comment on why it was supporting McAuliffe over Youngkin. (He also declined to answer questions about why the size of the company’s donations have increased, whether the company received the refund it requested from the PAC that backed McAuliffe with anti-Youngkin ads, why the company’s CEO suggested he was unaware of the PAC’s tactics when they had been in the news before the company’s final reported donation and whether the company made additional donations to the PAC that have not yet been reported.)

Theories, however, abound.

Republicans note that many Dominion executives are veterans of Democratic politics. That includes new CEO Bob Blue, who previously served as a director of policy for Sen. Mark Warner when he was governor.

Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke, one of a growing handful of Republicans who has been openly critical of the company, posited that Democratic control presents the possibility of greater profits. “The Democratic agenda that raises the cost of electricity generation through programs like the Virginia Clean Economy Act hurt the bottom line for working families,” he argued.

Environmental groups doubt that argument, noting that under Republican control Dominion was able to lock in extremely profitable rate freezes and infrastructure investment bills at the expense of ratepayers. They posited that Democrats’ willingness to challenge the company is exactly why the company feels compelled to flood the party’s leaders with cash.

Dominion Energy CEO Bob Blue speaks at an event on Monday, Oct. 25, 2021, in Portsmouth. (Sarah Vogelsong/ Virginia Mercury)

“Dominion has been held more accountable in the two years that Democrats were in charge of the legislature than the last two decades when Republican-led legislatures allowed Dominion to strangle and fleece their customers,” said Mike Town, who directs the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. Town thinks Dominion has simply looked at the state’s politics and made a bet that Democrats are more likely to be in charge for the foreseeable future than Republicans.

Finally, people who work in the renewable energy industry, which Dominion has committed to since Democrats took power and passed the Clean Economy Act, say that as a monopoly the company stands to make money regardless of what kinds of facilities it builds, but that any change in course at this point simply represents an unnecessary business risk.

Harry Godfrey, the director of the industry group Virginia Advanced Energy Economy, said big businesses like Dominion want market certainty, and pivoting back to Republican control and any effort to unwind the state’s transition to renewables would undermine that at this point.

“The energy industry, of which Dominion is a significant part, is a large warship,” he said. “It does not turn quickly. There are gains both for the companies, the citizens and Virginia’s economy overall for staying on that course. Which is why I think you see a preference toward staying the course here.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.